A ridership that is increasing, albeit in fits and spurts, is helping the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority recoup more than it had been expecting from the farebox when it comes to rail service.
But that recovery is lagging expectations when it comes to bus operations, according to new data.
The Metro system received about 11 cents from transit passengers for every $1 it spent to operate the system during the eight months that ended March 31, according to a performance report from the transit agency.
That 10.6-percent recovery rate is running above the 7.6 percent expected by the agency for the entire fiscal year that ends June 30, in part because of higher passenger loads and cost-containment strategies in the current phase of the COVID era.
Almost no public-transit system in the nation has ever survived without public subsidies (the New York City subway system for a time was an exception), and the perpetually cash-strapped Metro system from its inception has bled red ink. The pandemic, which sent passengers scurrying to the safety of their homes and particularly impacted subway service, didn’t help.
Performance among the three legs of the system breaks down this way:
• The subway portion of Metro recouped about 14 cents from passengers for every dollar spent on it for the first nine months of the fiscal year that began last July. That’s above the target of 8 cents.
• The bus portion of the system recouped just under 7 cents for every dollar spent, below the target of 8 cents.
• The MetroAccess service garnered 3 cents from passengers for every $1 spent on operating the system, above the 2-cent expectation.
Looked at another way, it cost Metro $14.05 for every passenger trip during the nine-month period: $19.54 for rail, $8.67 for bus and $105.91 for MetroAccess.
For the three-quarter period, operating revenues from passenger service was $182.1 million, $24.2 million above expectations, while operating expenses were just over $1.4 billion.
While the transit system is making progress in bringing back some passengers, it acknowledges that ridership is likely to remain below pre-COVID numbers for an extended period of time. Some have begun suggesting that the solution lies in eliminating fares altogether, especially on bus service.
For the third quarter of the fiscal year (January to March), Metrobus averaged 190,000 riders on weekdays (down 22% from the preceding quarter) and 96,000 on weekends (down 11%). Metrorail averaged 164,000 on weekdays (down slightly) and 99,000 on weekends (down 9%). Declines could be attributed in part to a resurgence in COVID cases, which derailed some back-to-the-office efforts, plus winter weather that impacted both local residents and tourists.