PRTC Ridership Declined in 2014

Jan. 12, 2015
A lower transit benefit and falling gas prices are likely reasons .

Bus services operated by the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) transported more than 3.1 million passengers in calendar year 2014, a 3.6 percent decrease compared with the previous year.

PRTC provides commuter and local bus services for residents of Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park.  In 2014, PRTC’s OmniRide and Metro Direct commuter bus services carried more than 2.2 million passengers, an average of about 9,520 each weekday, a 3.7 percent decrease compared with 2013. PRTC’s OmniLink and Cross County Connector local bus services transported more than 967,000 passengers, about 3,650 daily, a 3.5 percent decrease compared with 2013.

OmniRide ridership was surely negatively impacted by the reduction in the maximum allowable federal transit commuter benefit. The commuter transit benefit allows employers to financially encourage the use of transit and vanpools. The incentive is pre-tax money that an employee sets aside and/or a tax-free fringe benefit provided by the employer. While private employers can choose to provide this benefit, it is required for federal employers. 

In January 2014, the maximum allowable benefit dropped from $245 to $130 per month. Ironically at the same time the tax-free fringe benefit for parking increased to $250 per month. The disparity remains today.

That difference was effectively a fare increase for all those who receive this fringe benefit, said PRTC Executive Director Al Harf, noting that about 77 percent of PRTC’s commuter bus passengers receive the benefit, according to a survey conducted in 2013.

Two other factors played a significant part in the OmniRide ridership reduction: lower gas prices and the federal sequestration.  The I-95/1-395 Express Lanes construction had a bearing as well, as construction added to the challenges of keeping the buses running on time.

Falling gas prices and the Express Lanes construction were also factors in the OmniLink ridership decline. Route 1 served as an alternate route for travelers trying to avoid Express Lanes construction, slowing speeds on multiple OmniLink routes and negatively impacting on-time performance. 

Despite the lower ridership figures, PRTC had some notable highlights in 2014 including:

  • The Manassas Metro Direct and Linton Hall Metro Direct commuter bus services started serving the new Tysons Corner Metro Station (rather than the West Falls Church Metro Station), in July when Metro’s new Silver Line opened;
  • Virginia Megaprojects funding enabled PRTC to offer free fares for the entire year on the Saturday Prince William Metro Direct bus service between eastern Prince William County and the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station. Now that the I-95 Express Lanes are open, passengers pay standard fares, and the route has become a regular part of PRTC’s network; and
  • The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) stepped in to save PRTC’s Tysons Corner OmniRide route in October 2014 by incorporating the route into the state-sponsored I-95 Express lanes plan. The commuter bus route was scheduled to cease operating in November 2014 when the 100% Virginia Megaprojects subsidy was set to end.

 Looking ahead, funding challenges loom large. Like all public transit providers, PRTC relies on a mix of federal, state, and local funds because the amount that passengers pay at the farebox covers only a fraction of the operating costs and none of the capital costs. Local funding limitations are the principal challenge, because local funding accounts for the lion share of public funding needed to operate transit services, and in PRTC’s case the source of the local funding is predominantly from Prince William County. 

Prince William relies on its 2.1 percent motor fuels tax proceeds as the source for that local funding and, with dramatically lower gas prices and more fuel-efficient vehicles, the tax proceeds alone cannot sustain existing PRTC services in their entirety beyond FY 2016.

Without a supplemental source of funding from Prince William, major service reductions will be unavoidable beginning in July 2016, which is the start of FY 2017.

On a brighter note, a pair of new routes will commence operations possibly as soon as Fall 2015, linking Lake Ridge, Woodbridge, and Dale City with the Mark Center at I-395 and Seminary Road.  The subsidy required for these new routes will be borne entirely by DRPT, as envisioned by the state-sponsored I-95 Express Lanes Plan.  These routes will begin operating once the under-construction I-395 Express lane ramps are complete.

Overseeing these challenges in 2015 will be PRTC’s newly-appointed Executive Board. The officers are:

  • Chairman John D. Jenkins, a member of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors
  • Vice Chairman Francis C. Jones, Mayor of Manassas Park
  • Secretary Robert Thomas, a member of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors
  • Treasurer Gary F. Skinner, a member of the Spotsylvania Board of County Supervisors
  • Immediate Past Chairman Michael C. May, a member of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors
  • At Large Member Matthew J. Kelly, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council
  • At Large Member Jonathan L. Way, Vice Mayor of the Manassas City Council.