DC Ridership Falls Despite Population Growth

As the Antiplanner noted last week, Los Angeles is not the only region experiencing declining transit ridership. Another is Washington, DC, where a recent report from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA aka Metro) revealed that ridership has fallen to the lowest level since 2004. The agency’s financial situation is so bad that WMATA’s number-two executive has resigned and, ominously, the agency has hired a bankruptcy attorney to help it deal with its problems.

As detailed in the actual report, 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.

Metro rails ridership declines, continued the report, are due to declining service reliability. Median travel times, the unpredictability of travel times, and the frequency of major service delays have all increased.

The report doesn’t say so, but a large part of the problem can be attributed to the construction of the Silver Line in Virginia. 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, which quite possibly lost it more Blue Line customers than it gained on the Silver Line. The cost of operating the Silver Line also diverted resources away from needed maintenance of the older lines. The decline in bus ridership probably represents people who rode both train and bus who gave up transit due to these problems.

Anecdotal evidence provided by comments and tweets on WMATA news reports suggests that a lot of DC-area residents have permanently given up on transit. “Eliminating WMATA from my day is the best decision I could have made for improving quality of life,” says one. “I stopped riding and started driving in June,” says another. “Parking costs more but there were huge delays weekly on metro, no reliability.” “The decision to avoid WMATA is simple,” observes a third. “It’s cheaper and over twice as fast for me to drive vs taking the new silver line.”

To make matters worse, a train operator ran a red light last week and almost collided with a train going in the opposite direction. Metro train used to be run partly by computer, but since the fatal 2009 crash that resulted from computer failure, Metro hasn’t trusted the computer system and relied instead on human operators controlling speeds and braking. But an FTA report last December found that train operators have run at least 47 red lights in the past four years.

The reliability problems have led WMATA’s deputy general manager, Rob Troup, to resign in disgrace and the agency is reshuffling its top management. Troup is not the first WMATA executive to resign due to failure to fix the system’s problems, and he probably won’t be the last.

Since the trains bring in nearly three-fourths of the agency’s fares, the decline in revenues seriously impacts WMATA’s budget. This may be one reason why WMATA has hired Kevyn Orr, the bankruptcy lawyer who guided Detroit through its bankruptcy. One of the things Orr will need to do is help WMATA deal with its $2.5 billion unfunded pension and health care liability, which will add considerably to its woes in the near future.

WMATA’s troubles will soon be replicated in many other cities. Many transit agencies, including those in Boston, Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, and Portland, have even more unfunded obligations (when measured as a share of operating revenues) than Washington’s. Few transit agencies that built rail lines since the 1980s have budgeted enough money for maintenance. Back in 2010, the FTA found that America’s rail transit systems suffer from a $60 billion maintenance backlog, a number that has probably greatly increased as agencies aren’t spending enough money to keep up with deterioration, much less reverse the problem.

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4 thoughts on “DC Ridership Falls Despite Population Growth

  1. OFP2003

    It’s not as bad as third-world nations yet. I had to totally give up on the orange line and now ride a different, more dependable, and less crowded line. When I saw “Troup” my mind read “Trump” and which caused me to imagine “The Donald” in charge of WMATA!!!

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    The report doesn’t say so, but a large part of the problem can be attributed to the construction of the Silver Line in Virginia. 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, which quite possibly lost it more Blue Line customers than it gained on the Silver Line. The cost of operating the Silver Line also diverted resources away from needed maintenance of the older lines. The decline in bus ridership probably represents people who rode both train and bus who gave up transit due to these problems.</cite:

    Some issues associated with the rail system (I live in the D.C. area, but do not ride Metro all that much):

    1. Related to the issues with the Blue and new Silver Lines above, the Orange Line (western terminal station at Vienna in Fairfax County, Virginia) shares even more track with the Silver Line than the Blue Line. Unlike the Blue Line, the Orange Line to Vienna has long been notoriously overcrowded, so peak-period headways and capacity could not really be reduced to allow for the new Silver Line trains.

    2. Cracked rails, seemingly more on cold winter mornings, which usually take hours to correct, and result in single tracking of trains (which reduces the person-moving capacity of line by between 65% and 75% (not 50%)).

    3. Chronic problems with certain classes of railcars, especially the 1000-series (Rohr) units (dating back to the 1970’s, when Metro service first started, and are worn-out (and structurally unsound, as the NTSB has repeatedly pointed out after wrecks at Smithsonian (1982, 3 fatalities, over 20 injured), Woodley Park (2004, no injuries thanks to fast action by the WMATA train operator); and Fort Totten (2009, 9 fatalities, about 70 injured)) ; the 4000-series (Breda) units, delivered in 1991, but now scheduled to be scrapped instead of undergoing a mid-life overhaul [curiously, the 2000- and 3000-series units, also built by Breda, are older but more reliable]; and the 5000-series (CAF) units, delivered between 2001 and 2005, also scheduled for scrapping instead of overhaul after numerous problems with software and a tendency to derail.

    4. Water leaks in the tunnels, especially on the Red Line in Bethesda, Maryland which leads to other problems (WMATA is developing plans to remediate the leaks, which may involve a weeks-long or months-long shutdown of the western part of the Red Line between Bethesda and Shady Grove).

    5. When the Metrorail system’s Adopted Regional System (about 103 miles) was completed in 2001, it was really not completed. Why? Because the system could not support eight-car train consists on two minute headways, even though all of the stations were designed with platforms that can accommodate eight cars. The traction power stations that supply electricity to the third rail were deliberately undersized to “save money” (there is space in the vaults and buildings that house the traction power supply equipment for added hardware to support eight car consists every two minutes) and besides, the railcar fleet was not large enough to allow operation of eight car trains in 2001. In 2015 there was a fire at a traction power station near Stadium Armory that impacted Silver Line and Orange Line service for several months – not sure if that station has been upgraded or not. The traction power stations around the system are being upgraded, but it is not clear when this work will be completed.

    Send money. Lots of money.

    On a related note, read this article in the Washington Post, which has some suggestions from a familiar name: Here’s what Metro should do to win riders back

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    OFP2003 wrote:

    When I saw “Troup” my mind read “Trump” and which caused me to imagine “The Donald” in charge of WMATA!!!

    Rob Troup, the senior WMATA manager who stepped down this week, was hired in 2010 according to this story in the Washington Post.

    Though some of the things that have gone badly wrong (notably the deadly smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza on “his” watch), most of bad decisions involving WMATA rail system safety were made years or decades before he was hired (notably the design and purchase of the flimsy Rohr railcars in the 1970’s, which were flimsy in part because of an assumption that the automatic train control system would run perfectly forever, a major mistake).

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