Plagued by years of deferred maintenance, the Washington Metro system will have to undergo severe cuts in service if new funding isn’t found. General manager Paul Wiedefeld is asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to increase their F.Y. 2019 contributions to Metro by $165 million, which is more than 10 percent of what they are giving in 2018. But Wiedefeld’s hopes for a “dedicated fund,” meaning a sales tax paid by all the regions’ residents, have been dashed by Maryland’s governor, who says there is no chance of that happening before 2019.
Ridership reports indicate that rush-hour ridership has recovered since Metro ended the “safe tracks” maintenance program that delayed many trains, but off-peak ridership has not. Moreover, the rush-hour recovery has been to 2015 levels, which themselves were 4 percent lower than the system’s peak in 2008. Weekday ridership in FY 2017 was 18 percent less than in 2008.
Since a large part of this decline is due to competition from Uber, Lyft, and similar services, some are beginning to doubt whether a full recovery will ever be possible. Metro board member David Horner notes that financial reports to the board repeatedly use the phrase “unsustainable operating model,” and he suggests that the rail system may be obsolete. Wiedefeld’s efforts remind Horner of “the expression about deck chairs on the Titanic.”
In addition to Uber/Lyft and the rail system’s unreliability, the Antiplanner has previously suggested that the opening of the Silver Line may have contributed to the system’s declining ridership. Silver Line trains use the same crossing of the Potomac River as Orange and Blue line trains, and those trains were using the full capacity of that crossing before the Silver Line was opened. To accommodate Silver Line trains, Metro had to reduce Blue and Orange line trains.
According to Metro ridership numbers, stations unique to the Silver Line–Wiehle-Reston, Spring Hill, Greensboro, Tysons Corner, and McLean–saw 15,874 boardings per weekday in 2015, the year it opened. This declined to 14,143 in 2017. Close to half of those boardings, however, were not new riders, as many people in the Silver Line corridor had previously driven or taken a bus to the Vienna station on the Orange Line. Boardings at that station declined by 7,546 the year the Silver Line opened. By 2017, boardings had fallen by 8,186 per weekday.
Immediate changes in boardings at other Blue and Orange line stations west of Roslyn were not so dramatic, but it is likely that people frustrated with overcrowded trains switched to other modes of travel. Between 2014, the year before the Silver Line opened, and 2017, boardings on the Blue Line stations west of Roslyn declined by 20 percent, while the other two Orange Line stations beyond the Silver Line declined by 31 percent. Since the rest of the system declined by just 15 percent in that period, a quarter of the Blue Line and half the Orange Line decline can be attributed to the opening of the Silver Line. That’s about 6,700 weekday riders, or 48 percent of the Silver Line’s 2017 boardings.
In short, losses on the Blue and Orange lines almost exactly offset the new riders from the opening of the Silver Line. However, the losses aren’t large enough to explain a significant amount of the system’s overall loss. The Silver Line’s multi-billion-dollar cost appears to have resulted in no net ridership increase, but it didn’t reduce riders much either.
The real problem with the Silver Line, then, is that it used resources that could have been used to rehabilitate the other lines. Similarly, Maryland has deemed it more important to build the Purple Line than to maintain the Metro rail system. With friends like Virginia and Maryland, Metro rail hardly needs any enemies.