Metro officials are forecasting decreases in ridership and revenue next year, and officials are poring over the system’s recent performance statistics for clues as to where to focus their efforts to curb the drop-off.
The projections for the coming budget, presented at Thursday’s meeting of the Metro board finance committee, offered a less heartening picture than many board members had hoped. Budget staff members anticipate a 2.6 percent reduction — $20 million — in revenue from passenger trips in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The ridership drop appears most dramatic for the system’s bus network. While rail ridership in the first half of this fiscal year has increased slightly from the year before, bus ridership has fallen 8 percent.
The projected revenue decline puts more pressure on local jurisdictions to come up with the 3 percent increase in operating subsidies that General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has requested, and for D.C., Maryland and Virginia to identify a source of long-term funding for the transit agency.
Budget staff said they’re trying to be conservative in their projections, even as board members poked at the numbers, looking to find cause for optimism. But Dennis Anosike, Metro’s chief financial officer, said the agency is seeking to avoid past mistakes — chiefly, painting too rosy a picture in ridership projections.
“We’re taking a more prudent approach, in terms of what we’re presuming or expecting for ridership this year,” Anosike said.
Metro officials worry that a White House effort to limit the size of the federal government or institute a hiring freeze could hurt their attemptsto win back daily commuters. And they reiterated all the usual factors that have in recent years instilled occasional gloom about future ridership: the rise of ride-share, increasingly flexible work schedules and telework opportunities for the region’s residents, and low gas prices.
They’re also worry that a recent change in the federal tax codes, which eliminates corporate write-offs for subsidizing employees’ transit costs, could contribute to ridership woes.
“To the extent that we can exceed our expectations, that would be a good thing. But as far as next year, the idea of making more aggressive assumptions would put us at a disadvantage,” Anosike said. “We’re trying to be a little bit more careful and a lot more thoughtful.”
Projections showing a particularly dramatic decline in bus ridership comport with new performance data presented at Thursday’s board meeting. The data offered a mixed bag of successes and shortcomings for the system.
For example, when it came to rail performance from July to December 2017, Metro logged significant progress. There were no recorded arcing-related fires in November or December. On-time performance, based on MyTripTime data, improved dramatically from the same six-month period in the previous fiscal year: 87 percent of trips between July and December 2017 were considered “on-time,” at least by Metro’s standards, compared with 66 percent from the same period the year before.
And Metro surpassed its target for rail fleet reliability, cutting nearly in half the number of offloads due to rail car problems compared to the year before.
But, when it came to bus service, reliability and safety struggled. On-time performance fell slightly below Metro’s target, and bus fleet reliability took a significant tumble from last year, from an average of 8,039 miles between failures to 7,504 miles between failures.
That decline was primarily caused by concerns about a defect in one of Metro’s newest fleet of buses, which caused the entire series of more than 100 vehicles to be temporarily taken out of service. Metro was forced to bring some older buses out of semiretirement to keep routes going in the interim.
The number of injuries logged for both bus passengers and bus operators also increased this fiscal year, due in part to assaults on drivers and an increase in the number of collisions between buses and other vehicles.
Board member Robert Lauby summarized the situations thusly: Lackluster bus performance is likely driving the ridership slump.
“I’d suggest you concentrate on some of these issues that affect bus ridership,” Lauby said.
Still, other board members offered suggestions for increasing revenue, even if ridership stays flat.
Finance committee chair Michael Goldman said Metro should consider finding a way to charge Uber and Lyft for pickups that take place at transit stations, akin to the taxes that are levied on ride-share vehicles that pick up passengers at some airports around the country.
“Let’s see whether we can develop any kind of revenue-raising from ride-hailing services,” Goldman said. “This seems to be an emerging trend, and I’d like you to consider the pros and cons . . . of joining in, like airports do.”
Goldman also reiterated calls for Metro to sell naming rights to stations or other properties. (The opportunity could be ripe, he joked, for renaming a set of subway tracks “the Amazon HQ-2 line.”)
Board member David Horner said there are other innovative ways for Metro to wring more revenue from the system.
“I think the board and others have some fantastic ideas that we could use” to direct a surge of cash into the system, Horner said. He didn’t elaborate on those ideas, but he said they “could be the salvation of (Metro’s) financial future.”
But with the Metro board scheduled to vote on a final version of the budget in coming weeks, board member Christian L. Dorsey advised his counterparts that they need to bring those solutions to the table as soon as possible.
“Board members have to unearth these ideas in the next week,” Dorsey said.