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Why the drop in ridership? Metro points to transit benefit cuts

Fewer morning commuters are boarding stations like Greenbelt for long rides.(Evy Mages/For The Washington Post)
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Metro ridership has been declining in recent years even as it spikes in other parts of the country, a potential concern to owners of downtown real estate. If employees are working remotely, the value of Washington office space is potentially diminished. And almost all of Metro’s ridership losses in the past year are from weekdays.

Officials and Metro riders have raised a series of possible reasons for the decline, among them federal job cuts, slow economic growth, increased teleworking, more bike commuters, increased fares and disruptions caused by track work.

Recently Metro officials drilled more deeply into the numbers and in a memo they outlined why they believe a central cause is the cut to federal transit benefits from $245 to $130.

Ridership declines began well before the benefit cut, so benefit levels are unlikely to explain all of the ridership losses. But Metro officials think the cut is behind the most recent drop for two main reasons.

First, some riders with the longest, most expensive commutes are cutting back on Metro the most. Stations at Vienna, Shady Grove, Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, Branch Ave., New Carrollton and Greenbelt — all end-of-the-line stations — have seen some of the steepest decline in morning riders getting aboard.

In total, Metro says that 75 percent of ridership loss has been from trips of seven miles or more, at an average fare of $4.10 per trip.

Second, the number of trips being paid for by the SmartBenefits program has dropped dramatically, by 6,400 on an average weekday.  Meanwhile ridership not relying on the benefits program is up 3,900 trips per weekday.

Take the SmartBenefits losses out of the equation and Metro ridership would have rebounded about 2 percent from Sept., 2013 to Sept., 2014.

Again, these numbers are looking at just the past year, and Metro is under budget pressure, so getting transit benefits restored is part of the strategy to provide some relief. Agency officials acknowledge that there is likely more causing the drops than just the benefit cut.

“Ridership could be down for a variety of reasons, and we continue to mine the data for other patterns – from the economy to demographics to fares,” its planning staff wrote in a blog post. “We can’t pin all of the ridership loss on the federal transit benefit, but the losses have been concentrated on SmartBenefits users.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz