Reduction in federal transit benefits could hurt ridership more

Metro is expecting ridership on its rail system to drop as much as 5 percent in the next budget year, continuing a decline begun after the deadly 2009 Fort Totten crash.

The transit agency is projecting ridership on its trains to drop 3 percent in the budget year that starts July 1 from expected ridership in the current budget year, falling from 220.7 million trips to 215.2 million. That would be lower than the previous two years, falling to a level not seen since before the deadly Red Line crash that killed nine and injured dozens.

And the numbers could get even worse if Congress doesn't act to keep federal transit benefits for commuters at the current level, the agency forecasted in a report slated to be presented to board members Thursday.

Metrorail ridership
» July 1, 2007-June 30, 2008: 215 million trips
» July 1 2008-June 30 2009: 222.9 million trips
» July 1, 2009-June 30, 2010: 217.3 million trips
» July 1, 2010-June 30, 2011: 217.1 million trips
» Projection, July 1, 2011-June 30, 2012: 220.7 million trips
» Projection, July 1, 2012-June 30, 2013: 215.2 million trips

Metro blames D.C.'s continuing high unemployment numbers with hurting the rail system, said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.

Recently, though, Metro also has blamed the Fort Totten crash for some of the ridership drop in recent years, filing a lawsuit last month against its insurer claiming that it did not cover "a drastic drop in rail ridership and consequential loss of revenue" caused by the June 2009 crash that could be continuing "potentially to the present."

Since the crash, trains are operated manually instead of automatically, which slows down service and makes stops jerky for riders. The agency also is undertaking extensive track work to return the system to a "state of good repair," but that has led to delays and closed stations, frustrating riders. Once off the train, riders frequently encounter broken or rehabbing escalators. And Metro instituted the biggest fare increase in its history last year.

Furthermore, Metro estimates that rail ridership will drop 2.8 percent more if riders' federal transit benefits drop from $230 to $125 per month starting Jan. 1.

The employment perk was boosted to $230 in 2009 through the federal stimulus package, equalizing it with parking benefits. It was extended just before expiring last year after extensive lobbying from transit advocates. But it is slated to expire again at the end of this year.

The transit benefit is given in two main ways: directly to workers as a perk or as a pretax paycheck reduction that gives employers a tax benefit. The benefit affects workers and transit agencies around the country, but Metro and its riders especially rely on it. Many federal workers get up to $230 paid in full, and about 40 percent of the agency's morning rush-hour train riders are federal workers.

The implication of losing riders may mean more space in rail cars, but it comes with significant costs. Rail revenue is already slated to drop by $12 million from the current budget's projections. If the $230 per month transit benefit expires, Metro estimates the amount of revenue coming in from fares will drop by another $16 million.

However, Metro is projecting that Metrobus ridership will rise slightly, up 1 percent to 125.1 million trips, back to last year's levels. "As population in D.C. continues to increase, bus ridership is growing slowly," Stessel said.

Bus ridership is not likely going to be affected by a decrease in transit benefit drops, Stessel said, because only 10 percent of bus trips paid for with SmarTrip cards use the benefits. And bus fare is low enough that riders' monthly transit costs don't usually hit the $125 transit benefit maximum.