Metro embarking on drive for riders

November 07, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

In an effort to reverse a five-year decline in Metro ridership, state officials have embarked on a campaign to attract new commuters to Baltimore's 14-mile-long subway line.

A survey of 1,000 Metro patrons in August gave high marks to the 10-year-old system that runs from Owings Mills to Charles Center downtown. Even at peak times, Metro trains are remarkably efficient, rarely running late on their 26-minute trips.

Yet, Metro has lost one-quarter of its riders since 1989, the biggest percentage drop of any Mass Transit Administration system.

"We can't put up with this loss of ridership," warned John A. Agro Jr., MTA's administrator. "Ridership on Metro is one of our top priorities."

Adding to the urgency is the fact that the 12-station Metro, built at a cost of $958 million, is poised to expand.

A 1.5-mile extension will connect Charles Center to two new stops, Shot Tower and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The $353 million project is 5 percent over budget and nearly a year overdue, but its opening next May is expected to bring much-needed attention and new riders to Metro.

Early estimates are that it will attract 3,000 to 4,000 passengers a day. The imaginatively designed tri-level Hopkins station will become Metro's largest.

But even if the new patrons show up, they won't offset the more than 12,500 daily riders lost over the past five years. In 1989, Metro averaged 50,000 riders each weekday. During the first nine months of this year, the average had fallen to 37,486.

The trend appears to have slowed somewhat during the past two years with ridership dropping just 1.3 percent from January 1993 to September of this year.

MTA officials blame the depressed economy of the early 1990s and changing demographics for much of the drop. Metro's principal clientele is made up of commuters headed to downtown jobs, and that group has shrunk.

The number of city jobs has declined from 454,350 in 1989 to 395,975 last year, according to the state Department of Economic and Employment Development.

The gradual decline is comparable to Metro's ridership pattern.

In addition, the communities surrounding city Metro stations have lost residents. The population of neighborhoods in the 21201, 21217 and 21215 ZIP codes has shrunk by 10 percent to 13 percent since 1980, according to census figures.

The fact that gasoline and downtown parking spaces have remained affordable in Baltimore has not helped either, said Harvey Zelefsky, the MTA's planning manager.

The basic one-way subway fare is $1.25.

The loss in ridership also points out Metro's greatest fallibilities. When populations shift, bus routes can be altered or service substantially cut back, but not so with a heavy rail system like Metro.

Metro's costs are mostly fixed. Reducing service saves little because the MTA still must maintain trains and stations.

On the other hand, new riders could easily be accommodated. Rarely is there a lack of seats on a subway car or much of a crowd in the cavernous stations. Planners estimate that ridership could double without any additional cost in cars or equipment.

Recovering the lost 12,500 daily riders would produce annual revenue of $3.2 million with little or no added expense -- a feat buses could never match. Metro's operating budget is $26.6 million.

"We may be facing more an opportunity than a problem," Mr. Agro said.

The survey conducted for the MTA in August by the marketing firm of Widener-Burrows & Associates Inc. of Annapolis found most Metro riders are black Baltimore residents who rent their homes, are employed, and earn low- to middle-income salaries.

The typical rider has used Metro for five years, walks or takes a bus to a station and then walks from a Metro station to work. The average rider's age is 36. Most own a car, but a relatively scant 16 percent drive that car to the station.

MTA officials hope to use the survey results to better market Metro. They see a need to reach out to wealthier suburbanites in growing Carroll and Baltimore counties and to reverse commuters, people who live in the city but work in the suburbs.

Owings Mills has grown by a third since the 1980 census, while Westminster and Eldersburg are experiencing even faster growth. Metro also has a surfeit of parking, nearly 5,000 spaces in the suburban stations.

"The research findings indicate that there is an overrepresentation of less affluent, minority consumers within the current Metro ridership than among Baltimore area residents as a whole," the Widener-Burrows report states.

An MTA task force is helping plan an advertising push by early next year. Many of its members are rank-and-file workers, including operators and station attendants. In part, Mr. Agro wants to strengthen enthusiasm within his own agency for Metro, a system that has been overshadowed at times by the fledgling Central Light Rail Line.

"People who ride Metro know how good the system is and stay loyal," said Dianna Rosborough, the MTA's communications director. "Our challenge is to attract those who have never experienced it."

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