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Editorial: MTA numbers game needs to stop

One potato, two potato, three potato, four.

Counting used to seem so simple.

Then along came the Maryland Transit Administration and things got so complicated.

Depending on whether the agency was reporting its fiscal 2009 numbers to the feds or to the state, MTA buses carried either 87.8 million riders (the federal number) or 69.8 million (the state number). Take your pick.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s only a variance of 18 million, or 26 percent.

An MTA spokesman said the difference was the result of different methods used to calculate the totals.

It seems that the federal number is based on counts made on a sample of bus routes and then extrapolated over the entire system. The state number is based on fare box data collected by drivers.

Interesting concept. Do you suppose the IRS would buy that reasoning on tax returns? Somehow we don’t think so.

Maryland legislative auditors weren’t buying it either in a recent report. While the MTA spokesman says the agency believes the state number is the more accurate of the two, auditors found $2.6 million in reported fare box revenue that was not supported by reported passengers, “indicating that ridership may be understated.”

No kidding.

It also turns out that the MTA’s counting problem isn’t limited to its bus service. Auditors found discrepancies in the ridership figures reported for Metro and MARC as well. Of the four transit systems audited, only ridership numbers for Light Rail “were accurately calculated and reported,” the auditors concluded.

In the case of Metro, auditors found that “184,000 more passengers entered stations than exited,” according to MTA data.

As for MARC, auditors found that in one sample of reports, the numbers submitted by train conductors on their daily reports did not agree with the numbers reported to the state by the vendor 24 out of 40 days, and the MTA did not reconcile the two reports. Auditors found “numerous instances” when the total MARC ridership reported to the state was identical for “four or more consecutive days.”

Such occurrences appear “highly unlikely,” the auditors said. That’s audit-speak for “Who do you think you’re kidding?”

In a written response, the MTA said it is adding automated passenger counters to its buses and, over time, the technology should provide more accurate numbers for bus riders. In the case of Metro, the agency said that because of staffing shortages, attendants sometimes open all of the gates at a station so customers do not have to use their swipe cards to leave.

On trains, the MTA said sometimes conductors cannot get all the way through trains during peak hours to get a passenger count.

Any way you try to explain it, the bottom line is still sloppy statistics. And that makes it very hard, if not impossible, for lawmakers to make informed decisions about the resources the MTA needs to fulfill its mission.

We offer one simple solution: No more budget increases for the MTA until it gets its numbers straight.