Riders to Metro: Adios

Los­ing pas­sen­gers and rev­enue, the sub­way sys­tem seems to lack a re­cov­ery plan.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

TO UN­DER­STAND the ex­tent to which pas­sen­gers are de­sert­ing Metro­rail, thereby de­priv­ing it of rev­enue and rais­ing doubts about the sys­tem’s fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity, it is use­ful to com­pare rid­er­ship pro­jec­tions with re­al­ity.

As re­cently as three or four years ago, the pro­jec­tions were rosy. To­day, as pas­sen­gers are in­creas­ingly turned off by de­lays, dis­rup­tions and dis­as­ters, Metro ap­pears to lack a strat­egy for re­cov­ery. Faced with a daily short­fall of tens of thou­sands of pay­ing cus­tomers, Metro seems com­pla­cent, or pos­si­bly par­a­lyzed.

Af­ter many years of grow­ing de­mand, av­er­age weekday rid­er­ship has fallen by nearly 6 per­cent since 2010 (de­spite a small uptick last year). San­guine Metro of­fi­cials, mind­ful that fore­casts of mass transit’s de­cline and death are cycli­cal, say the re­cent de­cline rep­re­sents a blip and that long-term de­mand for sub­way transit will grow along with the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion. They note that sta­tions and trains in the sys­tem’s ur­ban core re­main busy and crowded.

Still, the re­cent num­bers il­lus­trate the transit sys­tem’s dilemma; if they rep­re­sent a blip, it is a big one. In the fis­cal year that ended in June, Metro av­er­aged about 710,000 weekday riders — dras­ti­cally short of pro­jec­tions for 900,000, set in 1999, and also short of the agency’s up­dated forecast of more than 800,000, made in 2008.

While the “Mo­men­tum” re­port pro­claimed that “static or de­clin­ing rid­er­ship is not likely to be in the re­gion’s fu­ture,” static or de­clin­ing rid­er­ship now seems all too pos­si­ble. For its part, Metro says it is wait­ing on the de­vel­op­ment of com­plex new mod­els of re­gional de­mand be­fore it can de­vise — and, most likely, down­grade — up­dated rid­er­ship pro­jec­tions.

There are mul­ti­ple rea­sons for the dip in sub­way rid­er­ship. The rise of telecom­mut­ing and al­ter­na­tive work sched­ules, along with fed­eral job cuts, has pared de­mand. Fall­ing gas prices have tempted some com­muters back to their cars. Uber, Lyft and bike-shar­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the Dis­trict, pro­vide al­ter­na­tives.

Yet as Metro ac­knowl­edged last week, word of its shoddy and un­re­li­able ser­vice— busted es­ca­la­tors, chill­ing ac­ci­dents and marathon com­mutes aris­ing from quo­tid­ian mishaps and break­downs — is also turn­ing away pas­sen­gers. Of all the “blips,” that may be the hard­est one to shrug off, be­cause it is the tough­est to fix.

It is mod­estly good news that Metro fi­nally rec­og­nizes that poor ser­vice is driv­ing away pas­sen­gers; the agency is now sur­vey­ing riders (and, we as­sume, ex-riders) to dis­cover how big a role it has played.

The prob­lem is that Metro’s board can­not agree on a game plan, or even lead­er­ship qual­i­fi­ca­tions for a new gen­eral man­ager, to treat what ails its rail ser­vice. One thing is not in doubt: The cost will be colos­sal, mea­sured in bil­lions of dol­lars. And it is any­one’s guess where those funds would come from in an en­vi­ron­ment where pas­sen­gers, fed up with plum­met­ing re­li­a­bil­ity, are loath to pay higher fares, and strapped re­gional fund­ing part­ners are equally dis­in­clined to in­crease their sub­si­dies.

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