Metro’s rail ridership has declined dramatically over the past year, a worrisome trend for the transit agency as it heads into budget season in the midst of its aggressive SafeTrack maintenance program.
Ridership decreased 11 percent in the period from April to June, compared with the same time last year.
“This gives you a sense of what we’re probably going to be facing through this fiscal year,” said Michael Goldman, chairman of the Metro board’s finance committee.
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is expected to release his proposed budget in October or November for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
So what went wrong?
Metro officials offered several reasons for the drop: Early blooms shifted much of the Cherry Blossom Festival ridership to earlier in the season, they said, although no accompanying spike in overall early-spring ridership was noted. Heavy rain in May also deterred people from using Metro, they said.
“However, losses continued even on days with good weather and during peak commuting times, which normally are not significantly affected by weather,” officials said.
In addition, service disruptions from the first two surges of the agency’s SafeTrack program — which affected the Orange, Silver and Blue lines — had a significant impact on ridership, officials acknowledged. And riders have been slow to return after surges hit their areas.
What wasn’t mentioned: riders’ growing dissatisfaction with Metro’s safety and reliability and their increasing willingness to find other ways to get to work. Rail customer satisfaction was at 66 percent by the transit agency’s last measure, seven points lower than at the same time last year, and well below the agency’s target of 85 percent. Rail customers’ sense of reliability was even worse: Only 42 per-cent said the system was reliable.
A consultant’s report presented to the board in July warned that if current trends continue, the agency will face a budget shortfall of $1.1 billion by 2020. That presentation noted that ridership had dropped to levels not seen in more than 10 years and that the lost revenue from declining ridership was a key factor in the system’s financial woes.
Recent numbers paint an even worse picture.
Metro customers took about 8 million fewer trips from April to July than they did during the same period last year, according to documents released Tuesday in advance of a Thursday board meeting.
And those losses came across the board.
“Ridership was down across all time periods, days of the week, and nearly all individual stations,” Metro officials wrote in a memo included in a presentation for a meeting of the board’s finance committee. “Losses were especially severe in off-peak periods.”
In all, riders took 321 million trips across the Metro system in the fiscal year that ended June 30, down 20 million, or 6 percent, from the previous fiscal year. Metro had forecast a 3.2 percent increase.
The Metro board’s chairman, Jack Evans, attributed the ridership slide to SafeTrack, concerns about safety and reliability, and the reasons outlined by Metro. He said the ridership losses, while unsurprising, pose a financial concern for the agency.
Shifting funds from Metro’s capital budget into its operating budget, the Band-Aid solution the agency has previously undertaken for lost ridership revenue, is unfeasible in the long term, he said.
“Even if it’s legal, we’re not doing it,” Evans said. “Well, we’ll do it, I’ll just quit. Over the long term, it’s impractical — because you need the capital dollars to do the capital improvements.”
Despite the ridership losses, Metro avoided a budget shortfall this year through a combination of savings in service contracts, lower gasoline costs and lower propulsion usage prompted by reduced service. The revenue losses also were offset by savings from a hiring freeze for non-safety-critical positions.
That Metro’s need for aggressive maintenance contributed to the ridership slide underscored the need for increased funding — specifically, $300 million in dedicated funding from Congress, Evans said.
“We need more money. We need more money. We need more money,” Evans said, in a now-familiar refrain. “If we don’t get it, then I don’t know what the option is. We have to then stop service,” meaning reduced train and bus schedules.
Even so, Evans was unconvinced that SafeTrack would keep people away from the system permanently.
“If we start running a safe and reliable system again, people will return,” he said.
Board member Carol Carmody, a federal government appointee, said she’s confident that riders’ frustrations about reliability and concerns about safety are the most significant cause. But, she added, she’s hopeful that long-term improvements resulting from SafeTrack will bring riders back.
“The ridership issue will continue until the public is convinced that things are being fixed,” Carmody said. “It’s going to take a while.”
But Goldman maintained that the answer to Metro’s ridership decline isn’t that simple. He pointed out that ridership numbers started to drop several years before the system’s safety and reliability problems became chronic.
Ridership has been declining since 2012: In that time, Metro’s numbers for average weekday ridership have dwindled from between 0.5 and 2.5 percent a year.
Goldman identified one significant factor for the decline, which won’t get fixed by SafeTrack: housing patterns.
Metro was conceived and built at a time when it was largely used by federal workers commuting in from outer suburbs. Now, Goldman said, there are fewer federal workers — and they’re younger, more likely to live closer to the city, and to have alternatives other than Metro for getting around.
“The basic old core ridership just isn’t there anymore,” Goldman said.
And cheap gas prices, which have encouraged people to return to their cars, will continue to make it more difficult for Metro to compete as far as costs, Goldman said.
That’s not good news for officials who have said that SafeTrack investments will result in a quick return to growing ridership and revenue. Goldman said Metro will need more help than that — and that the key for long-term growth will involve encouraging more transit-oriented development and effective advertising campaigns to commuters who have more transportation options than ever.
“It will probably still take a couple of years to draw those riders back to Metro,” Goldman said. “We’re going to get a good system, but ridership isn’t just going to turn around and start boosting again.”
The dismal fourth quarter was an especially tough end to a year in which Metro had already seen flagging ridership. Bus ridership was down 6 percent, or 2.1 million trips, from the fourth quarter last year. Ridership on MetroAccess — the agency’s door-to-door service for the elderly and people with disabilities — increased 2 percent. The ridership losses for fiscal year 2016 translate into $58 million less in revenue than was anticipated from rail.
Declining ridership will be among the top agenda items at the board’s finance committee meeting, where members will be briefed by three experts on ridership trends to provide a better idea of why ridership is falling — and how, or whether, the transit agency can expect to win back some of those riders in coming years.
In recent years, other systems have enjoyed either steady growth or less substantial losses than Metro. The Chicago Transit Authority said rail ridership remained at 2015 levels in April, the most recent month for which data is available — although bus ridership declined by 6 percent. During the period from April to June, ridership on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco increased by 0.3 percent from the same period last year.