Metro system ridership declines, hits budget

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:38 PM

The across-the-board fare increase imposed by Metro this summer has led to a drop in bus ridership and less-than-expected rail revenue as a result of changing travel patterns, an initial analysis by Metro shows.

Bus ridership has fallen 7 percent, with overall Metro system ridership 2 percent below the levels of the last fiscal year, which ended in July, and 3 percent below Metro's projected level. The lower-than-expected passenger revenue is the main factor in Metro's overall revenue shortfall of 4 percent so far this year.

The number of rail riders remained flat (though it was boosted by major events on the National Mall), but 2 to 3 percent of rail riders have moved their commutes from peak times to the window with the lowest fares, and others avoided certain trips, according to the analysis.

Metro this summer implemented nearly $109 million worth of rail, bus and paratransit increases, including a new 20-cent "peak-of-the-peak" surcharge for some rush-hour riders. Rail fares increased about 18 percent overall, with the peak rail boarding fare going from $1.65 to $1.95. The bus boarding charge went up 20 percent, from $1.25 to $1.50 for SmarTrip users.

The maximum peak fare on Metrorail rose from $4.50 to $5.45 for cash customers riding during the busiest periods, the "peak of the peak": weekdays from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Metro analyzed the impact of the fare increase in a presentation prepared for a board of directors meeting Thursday.

The analysis found that on the rail system, riders took fewer short and very long trips, resulting in less revenue, according to Metro data that compared September 2009 with September 2010.

"Passengers taking trips less than 0.5 miles appear to be choosing different modes, such as walking or bus," according to the presentation.

The presentation said 2 to 3 percent of riders have shifted to the off-peak "shoulder" hours - the half hours after 9:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. - in order to avoid peak fares. It didn't look at those who had shifted from peak-of-the-peak to peak times, such as from just before 9 a.m. to just after.

The fare increase had a more dramatic impact on bus riders.

Metro found that ridership on its buses fell by 5 percent when comparing September 2010 to September 2009 as a result of the fare increase and the economic recession.

"While the economy has shown improvements for DC employees, the economic recession disproportionately affected bus passengers and will take a longer time to see positive gains in service industry jobs," the presentation said.

The Metro system's fare increase was expected to disproportionately affect commuters who depend on bus transportation and are least able to pay, according to WMATA data. Bus riders have a median annual income of $69,000; 50 percent are minorities, and 23 percent are unemployed, according to a Metrobus rider profile from 2007.

September ridership fell most sharply on the express bus service, where it dropped 5 percent, in contrast with only 1 percent on regular routes, Metro data shows.

The trend continues a pattern of dwindling bus ridership and revenue that has contributed to growing budget deficits at Metro. Bus riders took 123.7 million trips in fiscal 2010, 10 million fewer trips compared with the prior year, for a decline of 7.6 percent.

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