Silver Line, transit benefit boost expected to increase numbers

Metro ridership has taken a hit in recent months, but the transit agency is banking on it staying steady in the next budget year.

The transit agency is projecting that ridership will remain essentially the same level as it was in the last fiscal year and what it originally budgeted for this year, according to a budget proposal for next fiscal year.

The forecast calls for ridership on the rail system to rise 0.6 percent, a turnaround for the trains, which have been hit recently with a 4.4 percent drop in trips from July through October compared with a year earlier. Metro has had to reduce its ridership projections for the rest of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

But the transit agency has two cards up its sleeve for the next budget: The Silver Line is slated to start in December 2013, which should bring in more riders, and Congress has restored federal transit benefits to higher levels. Both of these lifelines have limitations, though, as the federal transit benefits are set to expire in December, just as the Silver Line is slated to start operations.

Metro forecast in October that it will provide 7.1 million trips on the Silver Line in fiscal 2014, when trains will run on the new line for the second half of the fiscal year. But it has projected that 2.7 million of those trips will be made by current riders who are switching to the line, meaning only 4.4 million of those trips will be made by new customers.

That translates to just 2 percent of the 219.7 million trips the agency expects to provide on its rail system in the full year.

Earlier this month, the federal transit benefit was raised from a maximum of $125 per month to $240 per month after being reduced for the 2012 calendar year.

The change was good news for Metro, which had blamed much of a recent ridership loss on the reduced benefit, saying that in combination with fare hikes enacted on July 1 that riders were opting to take fewer trips. Riders, such as federal workers, can receive the benefit as an outright perk or as a pretax deduction from their paychecks.

But the increase passed by Congress lasts only for the 2013 calendar year, meaning the first half of Metro's next fiscal year. Transit advocates have said they will push to have the increased levels made permanent, but Metro cannot count on that.

The remaining wild card remains weekend track work. The agency plans to continue track work on nights and weekends for months to come.

But Metro board member Tom Downs called on the agency to evaluate whether it is deterring people from riding the system. He said the agency has not mentioned track work as a factor in the recent rail ridership drop.

"We don't have defensible data yet on what is happening," he told the agency.