Metro ridership is outpacing transit agency projections, raising optimism after significant drops in fare revenue while putting pressure on the system to solve a train shortage and alleviate crowding.
Metro said the return to offices, higher gas prices and rebounding tourism are fueling the growth. The increase is a bright spot for a region and transit agency seeking a return to normal, though significant challenges remain as Metro stares down a budget shortfall and federal safety probe that has shaken rider confidence and lengthened train wait times.
Transit agencies during the pandemic began to shift the focus from commuters as their main customer base while developing strategies to lure new riders for shopping or leisure outings. Many agencies, including Metro, developed revenue projections that predicted slow ridership rebounds as many workers stayed home.
The new numbers give more clarity to Metro leaders on how telework is altering ridership trends, providing evidence that transit is particularly essential for bus riders with more modest growth on the rail system. Ridership at other transit agencies mirrors the recent growth for Metro, with the New York City subway system reaching ridership highs amid the pandemic in March and April.
Despite outpacing rider projections, Metro leaders expect to face a nearly $500 million shortfall in operating funds starting in summer 2023, when more than $2 billion in federal coronavirus relief that made up for lost fare revenue will start to run out. Increases in riders will shrink that budget projection, but not erase it until the system returns to ridership levels before the pandemic, something the agency does not expect until at least 2024.
Metrobus, the smaller of the two main transit services, continues to outpace Metrorail as it has since the pandemic began. The bus system now accounts for 60 percent of all Metro riders, a reversal from the dominance of the rail system before the pandemic. Bus riders, which on average have lower incomes than rail riders, have been more consistent while many rail users have stopped or cut back on transit because of telework.
The total number of passenger trips on the rail and bus systems from July 1, 2021, through the end of March was 28 million higher than Metro estimates, the agency said. Metro had projected close to 104 million passenger trips for the entire fiscal year, but reached that number after about nine months.
While the recent increase is dramatic compared with the mostly stagnant months of ridership for much of the pandemic, the numbers are far from pre-pandemic levels. Two years earlier during the nine-month period ending in March 2020, when the pandemic began to empty trains and buses, Metro served 220 million passengers, according to its quarterly outlook.
“These numbers are encouraging and welcome news for our regional mobility and economy,” Metro Board Chairman Paul Smedberg said in a statement. “While the Board’s budget assumed conservative ridership forecasts in the interest of fiscal responsibility, we are delighted that people are returning to the system more often than expected.”
During the last week of April, Metrorail averaged 223,000 daily trips on weekdays, or 35 percent of trips before the pandemic, while Metrobus averaged 293,250 daily trips, or 87 percent of trips taken before the pandemic.
Much of the growth stems from office workers, transit officials said. During peak travel periods, Metro also saw increases in the number of riders using employer-subsidized commuting benefits. SmartBenefits usage tripled between January and April to a high of 66,000 riders during the pandemic, Metro officials said.
“As the region transitions out of the pandemic and our services continue to improve this summer, we expect more residents and visitors will choose Metro,” transit agency General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a statement.
The increase in riders has led to more complaints on social media about crowded trains, particularly during the morning and afternoon rush. Metro is in its seventh month of a train shortage after the removal of nearly 750 of its 7000-series trains from service. The loss of the latest rail cars, which makes up nearly 60 percent of its fleet, has frustrated riders with lengthy waits for trains.
The series was suspended last October after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into a Blue Line derailment uncovered a defect affecting nearly 50 rail cars over four years. The defect causes wheels to move apart, which can make trains lose traction. Federal investigators continue to investigate the cause of the defect, while Metro engineers say the movement is likely caused by a variety of issues.
The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, a regulatory agency that monitors Metrorail safety, has ordered the 7000 series out of service until Metro can provide the commission with a plan on how it can safely operate the trains. Metro officials have said they can inspect the car wheels regularly to catch the defect before it becomes a danger.
Gene Wu, a longtime Metro rider who commutes from his home in McLean to the District, said he has grown tired of waiting for Metro to return to full service. He said waits can quickly grow over 40 minutes when a train breaks down on a line or another emergency interrupts service.
He said he also increasingly worries about his health now that masks are no longer required for passengers. “Something like a delay happens, then the trains get crowded, and then you have the issues where you don’t know who is sick and who is not sick,” said Wu, 50, who works in accounting at the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Metro officials said they have no update on when 7000-series trains will be restored, but agency leaders last month said they have submitted some documents to the safety commission for review. If approved, Metro said it will submit plans on how it would train employees to monitor for the defect.
The transit agency previously said it will gradually return the trains through the summer. In the meantime, Wiedefeld said last month that an increase in rehabilitated 6000-series cars should decrease wait times for Green and Yellow line trains from 20 minutes to 15 minutes this month.
Metro officials expect those wait times to continue falling in the coming months, saying the transit agency is projecting ridership growth to continue with increases in train frequencies.
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