Metrorail ridership falls below expectations, and riders say the same about service

Columnist

Many transit riders think Metro treats them like a captive audience, but there are breakouts.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Please count me as one more commuter leaving Metro. A little over five years ago, I lived in Aspen Hill and worked near Farragut Square. I walked to the Red Line’s Glenmont station and got off at Farragut North. Then I got a new job, this one near the Gaithersburg/
Germantown border, and moved to Germantown. My commute was a 15-minute drive.

I am now working downtown again, near Metro Center. When I started my commute, I was shocked at how expensive Metro was. Did the fares really go up that much in five years? When I started the job in November, I would drive to Shady Grove and take the Red Line to Metro Center.

My round-trip commute cost per day was $11.50, plus $5 for parking, making my daily commute cost $16.50! Multiply that by an average of 22 working days a month and that’s over $360 a month. Even the $130 pre-tax transit benefit I get from my employer covered only part of my monthly commuting expense, leaving me to pay over $230 extra per month. And now Metro is raising fares? My solution was to switch to MARC.

MARC is wonderful by comparison. There is a station two miles from my apartment, which means no more bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 270 twice a day. Now I’m buying gas every other week instead of every week; there’s $80+ a month saved right there.

My monthly pass for MARC is $125, which is covered completely by my transit benefit. I still have to take Metro from Union Station to Metro Center, but it’s only three stops, and on warm mornings, I’ll abandon it for Capital Bikeshare.

I’m saving over $300 a month in gas and additional subway fare by using MARC. Plus, with MARC, parking is free, my monthly pass is mailed to my home every month, I always get a seat, the trains have a “quiet car,” there’s no snarky train operator lecturing me on how to board the train and it’s all above ground.

I just don’t get how Metro can charge so much when there are more sane and reasonably priced ways to commute from the suburbs to downtown.

— Kevin Rowan, Germantown

As Metro made its case for the enormous rebuilding and modernization program of the past few years, it didn’t bring all its customers along for the ride.

That’s the thing about customers. They don’t care what the company is going through to improve the service. They care about the service.

Many do show patience. But it’s not endless. And they do display some inertia. Transit riders, like other humans, are creatures of habit who embrace change reluctantly.

But as Metro prepares to raise its prices again June 29 , Rowan isn’t alone in looking to the competition, whether that’s another form of transit, like MARC, or it means driving to work.

The latter choice puts extra stress on the D.C. region’s transportation system, but customers tend to act on their sense of personal interest rather than some vision of the collective good.

Metro’s trump card, to be played when riders tire of delays and disruptions in the face of rising fares, is the federal transit benefit. It’s either a direct subsidy paid to federal employees, or a pretax deduction for taking transit.

The transit benefit dropped at the start of this year. According to Metro’s most recent financial report, which includes the January-March quarter, rail ridership was 7 percent below what the transit authority expected. Metro officials say the benefit cut is just one reason for that.

They cite other causes, beginning in October, with federal government shutdowns for budgetary reasons, followed by severe winter weather. Metro also had hoped it would be drawing riders to the new Silver Line by now.

The decline in rail ridership continued into cherry blossom season, normally a boom time for Metrorail.

Winter is over, and so, we hope, are the federal shutdowns. But the fare increases are ahead, and there’s no sign of congressional action to restore the transit benefit.

The Metro rebuilding program continues, as it will into 2017, but its positive effect is not obvious to commuters.

Consider this from Metro’s latest report card on itself for January-March: Incidents delaying riders were up 12 percent compared with the same period of 2013. Metro attributes this to an increase in railcar, infrastructure and track delays.

This series of unfortunate events has continued into the spring.

Metro’s action plan: More track work. Riders’ action plan: Less Metro.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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