Fewer commuters in Maryland chose public buses and trains last fiscal year than in each of the three years prior, adding pressure to an already beleaguered Maryland Transit Administration just as it prepares to saddle frustrated riders with a fare increase.
Ridership in fiscal year 2014, which ended in June, fell by a combined 4.6 percent compared with the year before across all of the MTA's major modes of transit, including Metro, light rail and MARC trains. It fell most precipitously — by nearly 5.7 percent and more than 4 million riders — on local buses in the Baltimore region, the agency's most heavily used service.
While agency-wide ridership has rebounded some in the current fiscal year, the numbers for July through January still fall short of those seen in fiscal 2013, data released this week show.
Officials have acknowledged widespread problems with the bus service, which users complain provides little reliability.
Ronald Barnes, the MTA's senior deputy administrator and chief operating officer, largely attributed the 2014 decline to foul local weather, from tropical storms to winter snowfalls.
"As it relates to us — and we've looked at our services — we know that we encountered some weather issues and some other environmental issues," he said.
The ridership decline comes at a difficult time for the MTA, which has failed to meet legally imposed fare-revenue requirements for nearly a decade and is nearly a year late in delivering a five-year Bus Network Improvement Project plan to fix its widespread problems.
In 2013, the MTA said it would release the plan by April of last year. Since then, it has rolled out changes to only a handful of bus routes, launched a limited real-time, online bus tracker and increased service to a few new job centers in the city, including the Amazon distribution facility in Southeast Baltimore.
Officials said there is no new timeline for the release of the report. Moving forward, Barnes said, the project will involve "a lot more-fine tuning of our operations and the data and the tracking of our services and focusing on the quality of our services."
The MTA also faces a class-action lawsuit over allegations that its Mobility service routinely fails riders with disabilities, and the prospect of having its two signature projects — the Red Line and Purple Line light rail projects in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs — derailed by Gov. Larry Hogan, who has chastised state agencies for fiscal imbalances like those identified in a recent state audit of the MTA.
Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said in a statement that Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who has been charged with reviewing the Red Line and the Purple Line, is "examining every single facet of transit in our state, including ridership trends" as part of those reviews.
The audit of the agency, released by the Office of Legislative Audits last month, found the MTA's ridership fare revenues have failed to provide 35 percent of its operating budget — as required by law — since 2005.
Continued erosion of ridership could further diminish the percent of revenue covered by fares — which stood at 26 percent in 2014 — even as the MTA increases fares to comply with 2013 legislation that required fares to be pegged to the Consumer Price Index.
Erin Henson, a Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said that the increase will occur by July 1, in accordance with the law. The agency has not confirmed how much rates will increase on all of the individual modes, she said, but should have that information soon.
The agency recently estimated that for certain services, such as buses, fares would need to increase by at least 10 cents. When the law passed in 2013, the transportation department estimated one-way bus fares would jump from $1.60 to $1.70, while MARC fares would increase by $1.
Henson said "educational outreach meetings" will be held to inform riders, but the agency is not required to collect rider input before complying with the law.
Barnes said continuing changes under the bus network project — which included taking input from the public — will likely result in a better experience for riders overall and, thus, a net ridership gain.
"I have to believe that if we provide the service the public asked for, they are going to use it," he said.
Others have mixed opinions, with some saying improvements to existing services should be prioritized.
"If I had the money, I'd start another bus company," said Tina Gray, a 56-year-old Catonsville resident who has become increasingly frustrated with her daily bus commute to her job downtown with the Department of Treasury. "The only reason I don't drive is the job pays for us to take the bus, and parking is really expensive."
Standing at a stop near Edmondson Village Shopping Center on Tuesday morning, Gray said she suspects others have left the system because they are "fed up" with the MTA's poor service.
"People just feel like their voice isn't being heard," she said.
Brian O'Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, which advocates for the expansion of transit options in the state, said he supports the bus improvement project and hopes the final plan is released sooner rather than later.
If problems persist, ridership could continue to suffer, he said. People with higher earnings will choose driving if transit is inefficient or unreliable, he said. And while many poor residents are stuck using the bus no matter what, others have their earning potential limited by poor transit service.
"We've heard that people who may not have a car available for a commute may choose a lower-paying job because they just can't make the commute to the higher-paying job work," he said. "If you're trying to grow ridership, you want people to have a good experience whether they are trying the system for the first time or relying on it continuously."
Former Gov. Martin O'Malley made it a goal of his administration to double transit ridership by 2020 in Maryland from 2006 levels. As of last year, the state had seen a 15.6 percent increase.
Barnes said ridership growth continues to be a major goal for the agency.
Henson, the MDOT spokeswoman, said the department realizes that increasing revenue to reach the required 35 percent "farebox recovery" will only come through raising fares or increasing ridership, and has been taking steps to achieve the latter — such as the addition of weekend MARC service, the expansion of weekday MARC service on the Camden Line, and increased bus service to new job centers.
Rahn said he still is getting a grasp on the bus network plans and where the state stands in that process, but he already advised the MTA to move forward with any changes that will "help the private sector create jobs."
Beyond that, he — and Hogan — are still in the process of setting their priorities, he said.
"I don't know what the governor's desire is, but doubling transit ridership by 2020 is probably a very aggressive number, and off the top of my head I don't believe that that would be a realistic goal," Rahn said. "However, if the governor says that's his objective, we would do whatever we could."