At first glance, the first ridership report of 2019 looks pretty good for Cap Metro.
Overall ridership is up 6.1% over January 2018. That’s great. So is the continued improvement for MetroRapid. But if you dig a little deeper into the numbers you’ll start to see that the apparent success is not free of blemishes.
The transit’s main service –– fixed route buses –– saw a decline in average weekday ridership. Meanwhile, there was a substantial ridership increase on the weekends. That is no doubt linked to Cap Metro significantly boosting frequency on weekends. That’s a great change that I completely support, but ridership is always going to be lower on weekends than weekdays, meaning that there are fewer paying passengers to defray the cost of running the buses.
In fact, in the first four months of FY2019 (October thru January), Cap Metro has collected less fare revenue than at the same point in FY2018, in spite of experiencing a 3 percent increase in ridership.
Here’s the agency’s revenue snapshot four months into FY19 (collected from the delightful Cap Metro dashboard):
And here it is at the same point last year:
Likely the biggest impact on fare revenue came in June, when Cap Metro made rides free for AISD students. In the first four months of FY2019, there have been more than 628k such rides, accounting for about 6% of the 10.2 million overall rides. The problem is, we don’t know how many students were riding the bus before the free program went into place, so it’s not clear how many of these kids were paying customers who aren’t paying anymore OR if they are new customers motivated to ride by the free program. Yes, the free rides obviously led to a dip in revenue, but it probably also increased ridership.
Two other factors that could help explain the fare revenue: UT students & ACC students. Ridership among UT students increased by about 1.8% (or 30k rides) year-over-year, while ACC rides increased 16.7% (about 33k rides). In both cases, however, the ridership does not impact fares, since both schools pay a flat rate for student passes.
Finally there was the implementation of Cap ReMap in June, which reconfigured routes and, by Cap Metro’s own admission, has likely led to increased transfers. Now, more transfers should not lead to lower fare revenue, but it might lead to the ridership increase being overstated, since the same riders may be getting counted multiple times even if they’re not paying more (because they’re generally buying day passes).
Of course, the decline in fare revenue doesn’t present an immediate threat to Cap Metro because the most critical source of revenue –– sales tax –– is up. But the more dependent the system is on sales tax and other revenue sources, the more vulnerable it is to an economic downswing or, sadly, a political attack from state or local government (that’s what happened at the beginning of the 2000’s).
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been updated to include discussion of the UT and ACC riders. While I was editing I reworked a few other paragraphs to make things clearer, but I didn’t remove/change any facts.
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