Metro ridership is faltering so far this year, falling "significantly lower" than the agency's forecast for decreased ridership, according to a new memo.
The ridership drops have translated into $5 million less revenue than expected for the first quarter, according to the memo included in a presentation slated to be given to Metro's Board of Directors on Thursday. The biggest losses are on Metrorail, which raised $4.1 million less than planned.
Metro refused to release a separate report that it gave to board members last month detailing the decrease and declined to comment on the issue until Thursday's meeting, so it's not clear exactly how much ridership has fallen. But the agency brought in $182.3 million from ridership during last year's first quarter, meaning the latest loss likely translates to more than a 2 percent drop.
Metro had forecast that ridership would fall less than 1 percent this fiscal year, with rail ridership remaining relatively steady and bus ridership dropping about 1.8 percent. So, to have a decrease beyond that is striking. Such shifts in Metro's ridership matter, as riders' fares help pay to keep the system running. If the agency can't meet its revenue projections, the agency must find other ways to pay for -- or cut -- its expenses.
In the memo, Metro blames two factors for the decrease, both of which were known variables before the budget was finalized. Metro said the fare increase that took effect July 1 reduced ridership even though it was expected to bring in $55.5 million in new revenue. Some ridership loss was expected as some riders calculate the higher costs aren't worth it.
Metro also said the reduction to the federal transit benefit last January has hurt ridership.
Stimulus-elevated transit benefits dropped from a maximum of $230 per month to $125 a month on Jan. 1. Many local employers, including many federal agencies, give their employees the benefits outright, while others deduct them from paychecks before taxes. Metro estimates that two out of three rail riders use them during the morning rush.
Metro had forecast last December that the lower benefit would reduce Metrorail ridership by 2.8 percent. As of June, though, Metro officials had said they didn't have enough data to know if ridership was hurt. Now, however, they are blaming the lowered benefits and the elimination of "rollover" of unused benefits at the end of the month for federal employees.
Together with the fare hike, riders are being asked to shell out more money from their own wallets, a calculus that may make driving more appealing.
Local officials and transit advocates are still trying to get Congress to reinstate the higher benefits to match the $240-per-month parking benefit.