Metro is trying to restore transit subsidies for employees after seeing a drop in commuter ridership this past year.
According to the Metro’s November report, from May 2013 to May 2014 the rail system saw a 1.2 percent decrease in weekday full fare ridership and a 37 percent drop in student trips. The report also showed ridership decreased from the suburbs in the morning, with a 1.6 percent decrease in ridership from Montgomery County and 2.4 percent decrease from Prince George’s during peak morning times.
The report also looked specifically at people using SmartBenefits, which include the transit benefits available to federal employees and provided by private employers, in contrast to stored value riders, who pay for the fare themselves. In 2014, the maximum an employee could receive per month in transit benefits went from $245 to $130.
“In percentage terms, SmartBenefits trips were down by 7 percent, pass use down by 8.6 percent but regular stored value ridership is up 3 percent. This evidence illustrates that indeed the reduction in the federal transit benefit cap negatively impacts ridership,” the authors wrote in the report.
Meanwhile, the parking benefits rose from $245 to $250 per month. Mark Schofield, director of financial planning for WMATA, said employee transit benefits typically increase or decrease along with the parking benefits. This year, the transit increase fell through the cracks of Congressional negotiations.
“For the riders we have who are taking the longer trips (particularly from outer stations), that’s a big increase in out of pocket for them, but with the parking at the higher level for those folks who are sort of on the margin…it’s sort of a double whammy,” Schofield said.
Schofield said there are other ways to see the benefit reduction’s impact: by looking at when people are running out of their benefits.
“We can definitely tell people who used to get through the entire month or almost the entire month are now having to dip into their own case at the second or third week of the month,” he said.
Although WMATA only does large-scale surveys every three to four years, Schofield said he has also heard anecdotally that the benefits were affecting customers. The next survey is scheduled for fall 2015, when the Silver Line will have been operating for a year.
As WMATA prepares its fiscal 2016 budget, WMATA officials predict rail ridership and revenue will be lower than expected for the end of this fiscal year and will stay there for the next fiscal year, due to the decrease in benefits as well as other factors.
Schofield could not comment on budget specifics except to say that more details will emerge in the next few weeks.
Schofield said the board of directors does not plan to increase fares, as they only do that every other year. Fares cover about half of the budget and then the other half has to come from local jurisdictions, he said.
“That’s usually the sort of big balancing act…how much do we want riders to pay versus how much do we want local taxpayers to pay? So we’ll make that same sort of judgment again going into this year,” he said.