Crowded station platforms: A sight D.C. area travelers have become used to this year. Rudi Riet / Flickr

Who would want this gig?

On Thursday, the board of the Washington, D.C., area’s public transit agency, WMATA, will meet to confront its ongoing revenue crisis. As The Washington Post detailed this week, the situation has gotten so bad that the often-defensive agency has been forced to admit something it never has before: that increasingly unreliable rail service is at least in part to blame for annual ridership declines over the past five years.

The persistent drop in annual rail ridership since 2010 results not only from economic and lifestyle changes in the Washington region, according to a Metro budget report made public this week. The report cites “preliminary evidence” that “concern by customers over service quality and reliability” also is taking a toll on ridership.

The document — prepared as a revenue briefing to be presented to members of Metro’s governing board Thursday — includes an uncommonly candid recognition by the agency that subway performance woes have become so chronic that more and more commuters are abandoning the system, which has worsened Metro’s money problems.

Here’s the key chart from a related report. Note that the operating subsidies referred to here are a combination of federal dollars along with contributions from the local jurisdictions served by the agency—D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.  

If you know anything about mass transit operating budgets, perhaps you can guess where this is going: WMATA’s board will now be forced to consider raising fares to make up the revenue shortfall caused by declining ridership, potentially spurring even more riders to abandon the troubled system, leading to further revenue shortfalls, and so on. Alternatively, it could try to coax the local jurisdictions that fund the system to pay even more, but given their understandable unhappiness with recent major service disruptions, operational failures, and safety issues, that doesn’t seem likely. Or, it could cut service, a choice that would certainly reduce operating costs in the short term, but which would ultimately lead to reduced revenue as well.

For a typically sober take on what WMATA needs to do now, do read David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. And over at Washingtonian, Ben Freed has some smart things to say about whether the wildly successful Capital Bikeshare system is an appropriate scapegoat (it is not).

But here’s the worst of the rub: WMATA has been without a general manager since January. With trend lines like these, and no apparent end in sight to the rail system’s infrastructural and safety issues, the question for D.C. transit users right now has to be: Who in their right mind would take this job?

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