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Metro ridership rises, but not enough to alter financial projections

Metro continues to search for ways to increase rail riders, whose fares heavily contribute to the agency’s annual budget

A 7000-series train arrives at the Federal Triangle Metro station in December 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Riders returning to Metro in recent weeks have raised optimism at the transit agency, but the increases are largely occurring on the less-lucrative bus system. Transit officials on Thursday sought ways to similarly re-energize Metrorail in a bid to ease a looming pandemic-induced budget shortfall.

With two months remaining in the fiscal year, Metro already has met its annual goal for passenger trips as the number of transit users is 40 percent above projections. Metro board members say crime- and pandemic-related proposals — such as studying a mask requirement for certain rail cars — could help boost ridership on the rail system.

“We are experiencing a faster return than we thought, and it has continued beyond March,” Metro Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader told board members at their regular meeting Thursday. “Metrobus continues to consistently have higher ridership than rail.”

Metro has survived steep fare revenue losses over the past two years with the help of billions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid that will begin to run out in summer 2023, leaving transit leaders to focus on recruiting new riders. The federal money in 2020 allowed Metro to avoid its most severe service cuts in history, but transit officials say tough choices lie ahead without ridership recovering to pre-pandemic levels or another financial infusion.

Metrorail last week averaged 223,600 daily trips on weekdays, about 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while Metrobus averaged 297,600 daily trips, or 88 percent of trips taken before the pandemic. The bus system, which charges lower fares and carries riders who typically have lower incomes and fewer transportation alternatives than rail riders, accounts for about 60 percent of Metro riders.

Metrorail carried almost twice as many passengers as the bus system before the pandemic.

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Michael Goldman, chair of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission and a Metro board member until his term ended last year, said this week that Metro’s financial future depends on getting rail ridership this year to 50 percent or 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“The bus ridership percentage of 87 percent [last week] is encouraging, but that is likely the result of diversion of rail riders to bus and the lower bus fares,” he said. “Rail riders pay more than bus riders — especially the peak-period riders — and it was rail revenues that historically counted for much of the passenger revenue numbers Metro relied on.”

Many Metro board members said Thursday that they found the ridership update encouraging, even as the agency struggles through a federal safety investigation that has resulted in the suspension of about 60 percent of Metro’s rail car fleet. Some noted that train service, which has been reduced because of the shortage, cannot significantly improve until Metro reinstates the 7000-series cars.

Board members praised the performance of transit workers, who they said are squeezing more efficiencies out of older rail cars that are nearing retirement. “The statistics you shared are extraordinary,” board member Tracy Hadden Loh said.

The 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 projections from a year earlier. The passenger increase comes as many offices across the Washington area have reopened, alongside higher gas prices and rebounding tourism. Transit officials heralded the jump after spending several months shifting Metro’s focus from commuters toward luring new riders during off-peak hours.

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A rise in telework has coincided with a decline in office workers and federal employees — Metro’s largest customer base — using transit, prompting officials to project a fare revenue drop of nearly half a billion dollars annually, expected to shrink over three years as ridership slowly returns. The gap has been bridged by $2.4 billion in federal coronavirus aid — money that Metro can’t rely on in future years.

The award of a $120 million federal grant in March helped to soften the fiscal blow, while the recent ridership bump has Metro officials hoping they underestimated the number of commuters returning to offices.

Metro says ridership is outpacing transit agency projections

Goldman suggested Metro should consider leading an effort to pass a regional sales tax in the region. He said the transit commission supports an effort by Maryland and Virginia lawmakers to increase subsidies for Metro, although transit leaders have said little about the idea other than to thank local officials for the proposals.

While the latest increase in passengers has given Metro more clarity about the effects of telework on its finances, agency leaders say the train shortage continues to hinder them from gathering conclusive data on rail ridership. The 7000-series trains were pulled out of service in October after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into a derailment found that wheels on several of the rail cars were moving apart.

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While the cause has yet to be found, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, a regulatory agency that monitors Metrorail safety, has said Metro can return the trains to service if it can demonstrate a way to do so safely. Metro is working on a plan to screen the cars’ wheels on a regular basis for the slow-progressing defect, and officials have said they hope the series will be phased in through summer.

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Metro has continued to phase in older rail car models, increasing the rate of on-time arrivals from 67 percent in January to 75 percent in March. The oldest cars in service are performing at their highest level ever, officials said.

Still, the rate of on-time performance was consistently above 90 percent when the 7000-series cars were in service.

Metro’s reduced service levels have led to decreases in customer satisfaction, according to the agency’s latest performance report, released this week. Passenger satisfaction with Metrorail dropped from 91 percent in the fall to 68 percent this spring.

Metrobus satisfaction has similarly declined over the same span, falling from 87 percent to 64 percent. Increasing traffic levels coinciding with a return to offices, which slows bus performance, is a key factor, according to Metro.

Metro leaders say they are working to address rider complaints.

Riders in recent months have raised concerns about crime aboard buses and trains, as well as at Metro stations. In late April, the agency announced transit police would increase patrols on trains and buses. Amid rider concerns about the removal of a mask mandate, Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato said Thursday the agency as well as officials at New Jersey Transit are studying making some cars “mask-only.”

“That is something that we’re actively looking into,” she said. “We do have some concerns that have been identified around enforcement of the mask-only car, and how that could potentially create conflict among our customers … but we are absolutely looking into it.

Randy Clarke, Metro’s incoming general manager who will begin later this summer, said the cabs and ride-sharing vehicles he has seen on Interstate 66 indicate demand for a service such as Metro. Opening the long-delayed Silver Line extension, which will connect Metrorail with Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, also will add riders, he said.

“I think the bigger question is how do we get more people back on Metro,” Clarke said Tuesday, shortly after he was announced as the successor to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld. “Most people, I’m convinced, want to know it’s safe and reliable and frequent. So if the 7000 series were back today, I’m personally convinced … ridership would be significantly higher than it even is today because the frequency would be so much higher.”

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