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Metro ridership falling despite fat federal transit benefits

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Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir,Metro and Traffic,Departments

Meanwhile, residents flock to bikes, commuter trains

Metro ridership is flagging even though more people than ever are flocking to other modes of public transit such as bike share and local commuter trains.

The transit agency's overall ridership for the fiscal year is down 3.6 percent through March, driven primarily by a 4.9 percent drop on the rail system, according to Metro's latest financial report. Metrobus ridership is 1.5 percent lower than a year ago.

The decline represents a continuing trend for Metro, even though the agency had hoped to turn around the losses when federal transit benefits were restored in January. In the second half of 2012, Metro had blamed the loss of transit benefits for turning away some riders, who were left with a maximum of $125 per month in federal transit benefits last year after higher $230-per-month benefits expired. That and a July fare increase meant riders had to pay more out of pocket to travel. Metro officials said riders opted to take fewer discretionary trips.

Metro ridership continues slump
Mode July 2011-March 2012* July 2012-March 2013* % change
Metrorail 160,738 152,804 -4.9%
Metrobus 98,913 97,463 -1.5%
MetroAccess 1,554 1,499 -3.5%
Total Metro 261,205 251,767 -3.6%
*Trips in thousands

But now riders have the money back on their SmarTrip cards and then some: The new limit is $245 per month for transit, which can be given directly by employers or as a pretax payroll deduction.

Ridership has yet to recover.

"The short answer is, there are cross-currents that appear to be affectingridership," said Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye. "We have seen positive effects from the higher transit benefits, but these are now offset by effects of sequestration."

However, MARC and Virginia Railway Express riders are turning out in record numbers. Many of them are federal workers, who also have relied heavily on the federal transit benefit and who are also affected by the federal furloughs.

Meanwhile, the region is still growing in population. So why are riders taking fewer trips on Metrorail? And what are they doing instead?

Riders have complained about the ubiquitous weekend track work and unreliable service, with many saying they no longer use Metro on weekends and passengers frequently tweeting about service problems. Metro have said they don't view those as major factors, although an agency report at the end of 2012 partially blamed the work for pushing away riders.

Additionally, more people are choosing to walk or ride bikes within the closer in parts of the region, such as D.C., Alexandria and Arlington, said Robert Griffiths, who analyzes regional travel data for the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

A survey of Capital Bikeshare users released last week showed 61 percent of the bike members reported using Metrorail less often now that they use the bike-sharing service.

Meanwhile, 52 percent reported using the bus less often. Bikeshare members, numbering about 22,000, wouldn't hugely affect Metrorail's 740,000 daily trips, said Transportation Planning Board Director Ron Kirby, but they could be chipping away at the margins.

"In a way, this could be a good thing. It could take a little pressure off of Metro," Kirby said. "They complain about peak crowding, expansion."

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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