The Maryland Transit Administration reported to federal officials carrying 18 million more bus riders than it did when submitting ridership data to the state in fiscal 2009.
That discrepancy is revealed in a new state audit by the Department of Legislative Services. And that difference, along with difficulty in obtaining accurate counts of Metro and MARC rail riders — also disclosed in the audit — can complicate planning and budgeting for the state’s network of bus, rail and other public transportation modes, transit advocates and lawmakers said.
“You can’t run an agency in a financially sound manner if you’ve got discrepancies like this,” said state Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll and Frederick, who sits on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. “There may be some explanation for it, but the fact is, you’re reporting to the feds one number, and reporting to us another.”
The MTA told the state it carried 69.8 million riders on its core bus routes in the year ended June 30, 2009. The number sent to the Federal Transit Database maintained by the Federal Transit Administration, however, was 87.8 million, or 26 percent more than the state figure.
An MTA spokesman said the difference was the result of different methods used to calculate the totals. The federal number is based on counts taken on a sampling of bus routes and extrapolated over the entire system. The state number comes from fare box data collected by drivers.
“The sample number is only used on federal reporting and the method has been vetted by FTA statisticians,” said Terry Owens, the MTA spokesman. “We report our system data identically to every other property in the country.”
Owens said the administration believes its fare box figure is “the more accurate of the two numbers, which is why we report it universally, in every other context aside from the national transit database.”
But even Maryland’s measure has its shortcomings. The state audit that outlined the reporting discrepancies said MTA collected $2.6 million in fares in fiscal 2009 for which no corresponding passengers were recorded. Owens said that is due to overpayments, because fare boxes cannot make change for riders.
An FTA spokesman declined to comment before reviewing the state audit.
Maryland transit officials are working to solidify their ridership numbers with automated passenger counters, Owens said. He said 399 of its 755 vehicles have been equipped with the sensors.
“As new buses come online, they’re being equipped with this new technology and we hope to begin having that data available this fall,” he said.
Lawmakers have also put more pressure on transportation officials to meet a state requirement that transit systems raise at least 35 percent of operating revenue through the fares collected. Only MARC has hit that threshold in the last three years.
“In this year’s budget we said you’ve got to find a way to meet it, whether it’s raising fares or other means,” said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Transportation and Environment Subcommittee.
Said Brinkley: “If you were collecting at least the minimum fare from everyone who boarded the bus, maybe there wouldn’t be a need for a fare increase.”
Auditors also raised issues with passenger counts on the Metro line and MARC. They found 184,000 more passengers entered Metro stations than left them. MTA attributed that to times when the administration cannot staff stations, forcing them to open all fare gates to ensure that disabled riders can leave the station.
Daily passenger counts on MARC did not match totals for 24 of 40 days, according to the audit.
A budgetary focus on bus and rail lines has grown in recent years, with mass transit accounting for 35 percent of Maryland’s transportation spending, up from 29 percent four years ago. The three major transportation projects in the pipeline are all mass transit — the Red Line in Baltimore, the Purple Line in suburban Washington and the Corridor Cities Transitway, which runs roughly along Interstate 270. They would follow two highway projects underway — the Inter-County Connector and widening of Interstate 95 in Baltimore.
Michele Whelley, president and CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said undercounting riders could take away from advocates’ efforts to spur investment in mass transit, where bus routes play a crucial role in linking modes like MARC, light rail and the Metro.
“Accurate ridership counts are important in terms of transportation planning in terms of schedules, frequency of service and the opportunity to expand service based on demand,” Whelley said. “If the ridership numbers can justify increased service so that those connections are made, we should be reporting every rider who gets on a bus.”
Of course there are discrepancies between the fairbox and an attempt to extrapolate total ridership. Half the time when I get on the bus, the fairbox either isn’t working or the driver has it covered. I’ve even gotten yelled at before for swiping my monthly pass when the driver doesn’t want to record his passengers that day for whatever reason.