“I think [the ridership decline] reflects trends that have been continuing over a number of years: the decline in the federal workforce and the availability of work at home by a lot of federal workers . . . as well as the trends that favor movement to Uber and Lyft,” said Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland. “I’m not sure there’s any really good solution.”
Ridership fell from a 2008 peak of 750,000 weekday trips to fewer than 650,000 during the transit agency’s SafeTrack rebuilding program. Between July and December, average weekday ridership was 595,000, according to the agency’s latest report.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld included several rider-friendly initiatives in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Among them: increasing service on the Red and Yellow lines, expanding the window of rush-hour service, gradually moving to all eight-car trains, and a flat $2-fare on weekends.
But some, including the agency’s Riders’ Advisory Council, have said those plans don’t go far enough to address what have become some of the agency’s chronic problems: too few trains and too many service disruptions sending riders to alternatives such as ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, and modes other than public transit.
Additionally, Maryland and Virginia — along with the Metro board members who represent them — have said they are unwilling to provide the extra money that would be needed to fund Wiedefeld’s proposals.
The board will vote on a budget this spring.
Metro is considering contracting with ride-hailing services to provide rides for late-night workers, after the board rebuffed the District’s pleas to restore late-night and more weekend service.
Still, even the measures Wiedefeld proposed would produce only marginal gains in ridership: 1,000 to 3,000 additional daily riders for the increased Yellow Line service, for example, compared to an additional 10,000 to 20,000 riders that would be gained by running all-day, rush-hour-level service under a recommendation made in an internal agency ridership growth plan.
Capital projects included in the budget are projected to hurt ridership even more. Among those projects: the system’s longest-ever rail line shutdown at 101 days.
The agency will shutter six stations south of Reagan National Airport for three months to rebuild platforms on the Blue and Yellow Lines beginning in late May.
“In [the coming fiscal year], ridership is projected to decline compared to the prior fiscal year as a result of service interruptions associated with major capital projects,” budget documents say. “This decline is expected to be offset by increased ridership resulted from new customer service initiatives.”
The initiatives referred to are the same ones some board members have expressed reluctance to support.
“I think the board is very concerned about ridership,” Metro board Chairman Jack Evans said. “But I think that at least with Maryland and Virginia, they are also very concerned about cost. And it appears the cost — at least as we got into these budget discussions — the cost was overrunning the ridership issue.”
Evans said the board will ultimately be forced to make compromises, although some proposed by board members, such as charging peak fares for the additional rush-hour service, would wipe out any ridership gains.
“That there’s a real sense in those two jurisdictions, ‘We want to stay within the cost,’ ” Evans said. “ ‘We have to make choices.’ ”
Board member Christian Dorsey, who represents Virginia, questioned, for example, the wisdom of the weekend $2 flat fare proposal, given persistent complaints about the quality of Metro’s weekend service.
“We’re hearing from so many riders who say, ‘You know what, you can make it free; if I have to wait 30 minutes for a train and I’m not gonna know until I’m gonna get there, that’s not gonna be very convenient for me,’ ” Dorsey said of the proposal, which would cost $3 million. “I’m wondering if the revenue that we will lose will not actually result in an increase in riders.”
And amid mounting pressure from the board to keep the agency’s spending under control, Wiedefeld has ceded ground on some of the measures he proposed. Asked by the board late last month, for example, which of the improvements he would select if he had to pick two, Wiedefeld opted for extending all Red and Yellow line service to their endpoint stations.
The board had already nixed one of the more dramatic proposals — expanding the rush-hour windows without an accompanying fare increase.
But to bring back riders, advocates say, Metro needs to focus its attention on service — in addition to long-term investments that will bring more passengers such as Phase 2 of the Silver Line.
“Transit agencies and cities must invest in new capacity where population and jobs will propel ridership gains,” wrote New York-based TransitCenter in its annual analysis of rail, bus and paratransit ridership in 35 cities late last month. “They also need to think at the level of the network — improving one or two transit routes in isolation is not going to cut it.”
The group found that transit ridership is growing in only seven regions — gains propelled by bus-ridership growth in areas that underwent significant network restructuring or boosts in service: among them, Seattle, Houston and Austin. (Richmond, although not one of the 35 largest transit markets, was also highlighted for its bus system overhaul that has resulted in ridership gains.)
Metro is in the midst of a regional bus overhaul targeted for completion by July 2020, but it remains unclear whether it will rise to the level of a full-network redesign seen in cities such as Houston, Baltimore and Richmond.
Ben Fried, director of communications for TransitCenter, said while Metro’s long-deferred maintenance must be addressed, the agency’s situation also calls for significant efforts to bolster ridership, lest it risk losing some riders permanently.
“I think they risk squandering this culture of transit riding that has taken many decades to build up,” Fried said. “You can’t take that for granted. You can squander that in a few years and just end up in a spot where there is a long-term detrimental impact to transit ridership that outlasts the current maintenance crisis.”