Metro ridership drops amid federal shutdown


Commuters exit the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station Tuesday morning amid a federal government shutdown. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

The first day of the federal government’s shutdown left Metro trains less crowded than their usual rush hour armpit-to-armpit feel.

There are typically 750,000 trips on an average weekday, and its bus system handles about 450,000. But as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, Metro’s rail ridership was down 2 percent, to 411,000, compared with the same time period a week ago. The rail system saw blips at midday, as some federal workers headed home, but trains, station platforms and buses were half-empty during the 5 o’clock rush hour.

The shutdown comes as Metro faces a host of other challenges that are already lowering ridership.

Metro’s rail ridership dropped by 9 million trips to 209 million for fiscal 2013, compared with the previous year. Revenue is $20.3 million less than expected.

The reasons for the reduction are varied and complicated, officials say.

They planned for months and travelled far and wide to visit Washington, D.C., but tourists have been greeted by the government shutdown, which means closed museums and sites. The Post's Zoeann Murphy talks to some of them on the National Mall. (The Washington Post)

There was the federal government’s sequestration. Congress also has gone back and forth on the amount riders receive in transit benefits. The system shut down for Hurricane Sandy, and federal workers received an unexpected day off for last year’s Christmas Eve holiday.

Service issues also play a role. Longer waits on weekends as Metro aggressively tries to rebuild its aging and deteriorating system have affected ridership. The maintenance also has forced Metro to shut down parts of each of the five rail lines and some stations nearly every weekend to do the work.

But on Tuesday, the reason for the reduced ridership was clear: Washington is still a federal town. About 40 percent of the roughly 200,000 riders who use the train system during rush hour are federal workers. On Metro’s buses, it was harder to get a read on reduced ridership because data had not been processed.

Metro has said it would likely run fewer eight-car trains as the shutdown continues. Some riders felt a certain pleasure — and guilt — in riding on emptier trains.

“It’s much less crowded than it normally is at this time of day,” said Yves Tchokouani, an accountant, as he waited at 5:15 p.m. for a Yellow Line train to Huntington.

“It’s the first time I’ve been here without it being packed with people,” he said of the busy Gallery Place station. “It’s not a good thing for people who aren’t working and not getting paid, but it makes the commute more comfortable.”

“Usually you can’t get a seat,” he said. There were at least a dozen empty ones.

Amanda Allen, a psychologist, works downtown and commutes on the Yellow Line from Braddock Road to the Archives-Navy Memorial stop.

“I’m hoping it will be a little less crowded” with the shutdown, she said of Metro. “That will be nice. It’s usually hard to find a place to sit. It’s nice to have some room.”

Even on the normally packed Blue and Orange Lines, which riders sometimes call the “Orange Crush” at rush hour because they’re so packed, there was a difference Tuesday. In the 5 o’clock hour, trains passed through the downtown core stations only half full of riders.

Rebecca Turner, an environmental lawyer, said she’s noticed the change. On Tuesday, her normal hour-long commute on a bus from Glover Park to downtown took only 30 minutes, and it was only half full.

“We didn’t stop at every stop, because there just weren’t people there,” she said.

But she has mixed feelings on whether she’s relieved to see fewer crowds on trains and buses.

“It’s relief, and then you realize all your good friends are furloughed and struggling to pay bills,” she said. “Yes, it’s nice to have my commute time cut in half, but the reason why isn’t so nice.”

Metro’s ridership numbers on Tuesday were like a roller coaster.

In the morning rush hour, Metro ridership on its rail system dropped 10 percent compared with the same time last Tuesday, officials said. At midday, ridership saw a slight uptick as thousands of federal workers came in for half a day to check in and then were sent home. But by the evening, things had pretty much emptied out.

In Tuesday morning’s rush hour, Peter Tompa settled comfortably into a seat aboard a normally crowded Metrobus that runs from the Friendship Heights area to the Archives-Navy Memorial stop.

“I enjoy it being lighter, but for the wrong reasons,” said Tompa, who is a lawyer. His wife was sent home from her job at the National Gallery of Art.

“It’s unfortunate,” Tompa said of the shutdown. “Hopefully this will only go on for a few days.”

About 1 p.m., Jennifer Moats of Columbia waited at Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza station for a Green Line train headed to Greenbelt as she headed home from her job as an economist at the Commerce Department.

Normally, she takes a commuter bus directly into the District, but Tuesday she didn’t want to wait until it left at 4 p.m., and she figured there would be an influx of other federal workers trying to get on the bus that seats 55.

“It looks like everybody’s going home,” she said as she boarded a train that had only a handful of empty seats.

Another impact of the federal government shutdown on Metro’s coffers could be how it gets paid for federal workers whose commutes are subsidized by the government. Metro sent out bills in late September to dozens of federal agencies. They have 30 days to pay.

“They still have time,” said Dan Stessel, Metro’s spokesman. “We’ll send them reminders if we need to.”

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.
Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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