Metro ridership is continuing to decline, a worrisome trend that could complicate the transit agency’s budget preparations and has forced officials to again acknowledge that poor service is driving customers away.
The agency’s second-quarter financial update, to be presented to Metro’s board Thursday, notes that rail ridership remained at levels not seen in 10 years. Weekday ridership was down 6 percent compared with fiscal 2015, and weekend ridership was down 12 percent, according to documents prepared for the meeting.
“The ridership declines have impacted nearly all stations, time periods and trip types, and cannot be attributed to poor weather, as the autumn and early winter were relatively mild,” the report says.
Like previous staff analyses, the report cites “the frequency of severe delays” caused by chronic breakdowns and other subway operational woes.
“Riders have been forced to budget more travel time to avoid being late,” the report says. “This trend likely is one contributing factor to the current decline in rail ridership.”
Ridership, trending downward since 2010, is a major focus of concern for board members as they work to finalize a $3 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The board has a budget work session Thursday.
The proposed budget envisions $1.7 billion in daily operating costs, with a projected $615 million in rail-fare revenue paying for a lot of those expenses.
The planned $1.7 billion operating budget is $79 million less than this fiscal year’s anticipated day-to-day spending. And the continuing drop in train ridership is a big reason for the belt-tightening: The estimated $615 million in rail-fare revenue is $21 million less than the expected total for the current fiscal year.
If revenue from rail passengers falls below $615 million, the difficult task of balancing the operating budget will become even more challenging for the board. And on that score, the second-quarter ridership figures are a worrisome indicator.
“It’s not new news to us,” board member Jim Corcoran said of the ridership report, but the trend is “a huge, huge consideration.” Echoing others on the board, Corcoran, president of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said that reversing the decline and boosting rail revenue won’t be possible without improving service.
“Yes, there are mega-societal trends that are taking place, such as the buildup of walkability in the Washington area,” he said. “And you have Uber, you have bike-sharing, and all those other things. But that should be offset by the population growth we’ve seen in metropolitan Washington. Common sense says that.”
The subway’s operational failures in the last calendar year were especially bad, beginning with the Jan. 12, 2015, Yellow Line incident in which an electrical malfunction in a tunnel engulfed a stalled train in smoke, killing one rider and sickening scores of others.
On Sept. 21, fire heavily damaged a rail power station, causing weeks of slowdowns on three subway lines. There were many other problems, including the Aug. 6 derailment of a train that was not carrying passengers. That accident crippled a big stretch of the rail system, stranding tens of thousands of commuters.
A decade ago, the ridership problem might have been hard to imagine.
For 13 years starting in 1996, rail ridership grew annually, increasing 50 percent overall, to a peak of 225 million passenger trips in 2009. Then in 2010, it began to decline and kept falling, to 206 million trips in the fiscal year that ended last June. And the first two quarters of the current fiscal year saw more of the same.
“We need to create certainty for riders,” Corcoran said. “That’s what people want. I’ve been to multiple stations, talking to the riding public. . . . They want to know that when they get on that train, they’re going to get to their destination in the expected time.”
He said, “If that’s you waiting for a train, and being late is going to cost you your job, then you’re going to find another way to get there.”