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Metrorail ridership drops as subway systems chart growth

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Local,DC,Maryland,Virginia,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metrorail ridership is faltering as nearly all other subway systems around the country are reporting growing usage, according to a new industry report.

Metro is one of only two systems to report falling rail ridership in the third quarter, according to a report released Thursday by the American Public Transportation Association.

The decline is slight, down 0.36 percent from July through September, but it comes as ridership nationwide rose 2 percent.

On the train
Transportation modeJuly-SeptemberYear-to-date*
Metrorail-0.36%-0.23%
Metrobus+5.71%+6.61%
MARC-0.72%+1.82%
VRE+8.88%+13.67%
U.S. transit average+2.03%+1.80%
* Year-to-date: January through September
Source: American Public Transportation Association

Atlanta's MARTA system was the only other heavy rail subway system to show a drop. Riders flocked to subway lines in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, with Cleveland boasting the highest gains with a 9.67 percent increase.

The trend holds true for 2011 so far, the first time in three years, according to APTA. The group credits high gasoline prices, improved real time travel information and a recovering economy for spurring the uptick.

But Metro officials blame the economy as the chief reason that rail ridership is down, rather than ongoing issues with train reliability and repairs to tracks and escalators.

The region, however, has fared better than most parts of the country with job growth and unemployment rates.

"The Washington region's recession may have hit later than in other places but has not been as severe," Metro spokesman Dan Stessel acknowledged. Still, he said, employment growth and spending have stalled in the federal sector, and Metrorail ridership is especially sensitive to changes there.

But the local economy has not obviously damaged local commuter rail systems. Ridership on Virginia Railway Express is at a record high, up nearly 13.67 percent for the first three-quarters of the year. VRE credits its high on-time performance -- a record 92 percent -- as one reason commuters are willing to tolerate standing-room-only trains.

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  • MARC ridership is up 1.82 percent overall for the year, despite faltering in the third quarter, according to the APTA report. MARC spokesman John Wesley said officials do not know why ridership dipped over the summer.

    Metro's rail ridership has been wavering since a system high in the 2009 fiscal year, which ended a week after the deadly Fort Totten crash. In a lawsuit filed against its insurer this fall, Metro blamed the crash for some of the losses, claiming that the insurer 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."

    The agency forecasts that rail ridership will drop more than 5 percent in the next budget year -- especially if Congress doesn't extend federal transit benefits, which are slated to fall from $230 to $125 per month next year.

    However, ridership on Metrobus climbed 6.61 percent in the first nine months of the year, according to the APTA report.

    Metro officials have not been able to explain exactly why more people are riding buses. Some of that may be an artifact of poor record-keeping. Metro's inspector general said earlier this year that the agency had been understating how many riders took Metrobus between at least July 2009 through April 2010.

    kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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