Latest News About Metro Rail is “Unrelentingly Dismal”
By Mark Uncapher
The latest news about Metrorail is “unrelentingly dismal,” as described by The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock” in an article titled “Metro Ridership Continues to Plummet along with Service.”
Metrorail ridership during the second half of 2015 “dropped to levels not seen since 2004,” according to a report delivered to Metro’s board earlier this month. Rail revenues and ridership in the first half of F.Y. 2016 are both down by 7 percent from the same period in F.Y. 2015. Metrorail ridership peaked in 2009, and if the second half of F.Y. 2016 is as bad as the first, annual ridership will be down as much as 30 percent from that peak, despite a 15 percent increase in the region’s population. Bus ridership and revenue in 2016 is also down but by only about 3 percent below 2015.
Red Line riders will hardly be surprised that the report attributes Metrorail’s lower ridership to a decline in service reliability. Median travel times, the unpredictability of travel times, and the frequency of major service delays have all increased. “The only way to substantially improve satisfaction is through sustained and consistent service delivery,” concluded the report.
Transportation expert Randal O’Toole attributes some of Metro’s failures to the construction of the Silver Line in Virginia. O’Toole reasons that since the Silver and Blue lines share the same tracks in DC and the Blue Line was already operating at full capacity, opening the Silver Line forced the agency to reduce service on the Blue Line. He suggests that Metro has lost more Blue Line customers than it gained on the Silver Line. Additionally the Silver Line’s operating costs have diverted resources away from needed maintenance of the older lines. He speculates that the decline in bus ridership represents people who formerly rode both train and bus, and simply gave up transit altogether due to these problems.
Ominously, Metro hired one of the nation’s top bankruptcy lawyers to advise the agency on fixing its troubled finances earlier this month. Kevyn Orr, who led efforts that guided Detroit through the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, has become a “strategic executive adviser” to Metro’s General Manager. Under their contract, Orr’s law firm Jones Day will receive up to $1.74 million.
Usually, a discussion of the region’s transportation congestion woes focuses on appeals to build new public transportation projects…These include the Purple Line, the Baltimore cancelled Red Line, Montgomery County’s proposed Corridor Cities Transitway and Bus Rapid Transit system. Federal transit programs are structured toward funding new public transit projects, rather than projects that reduce travel times or improve existing service.
Despite the fact that cars account for approximately 97% of all travel, nearly half of Maryland’s transportation spending is devoted to mass transit. And transportation planners routinely promise voters and motorists that new mass transit projects will reduce traffic congestion.
Yet after spending billions over the past two decades on public transit, Maryland mass transit’s increase of 52,000 daily commuters has been more than offset by a 62,000 loss in car pool commuters. According to Census data between 1990 and 2008, 93% (400,000) of all additional commutes were by single-occupant automobiles. In fact, almost as many commuters have been “diverted” from the roads by working at home (47,000).
Drivers in single-occupant cars make rational economic choices in trading the higher commuting costs of a car for less time spent commuting. In effect, even a 6 minute reduction in commuting time can be worth the equivalent of 2% in income. The fact is that chronically unreliable Metro trains are driving commuters away from public transportation.
Forty years of development since Metro opened in the region has raised densities around stations to levels that encourage mass transit use. Metro’s fare box recovery rate, the percent of operating costs covered by fares, compares very favorably with other systems. Unlike many new construction mass transit proposals being advanced, fundamentals for Metro remain stronger.
However, failing to fix the core Metrorail system while allowing the continuation of financial and ridership declines, threatens to drag down the region’s entire public transportation system.