For years, WMATA has been proposing budgets with ever-increasing rail service. The approved FY 2013 budget has almost 8.4 million miles of scheduled railcar service, almost double the amount scheduled in FY 1997.

So why does it feel like the amount of service is actually declining? Because it is. According to figures reported to the Federal Transit Administration National Transit Database, Metro’s rail service hit a peak in 2009 and has decreased almost 6% since:

It’s actually part of a long pattern where Metro would propose a higher level of service to the Board of Directors, but then the actual amount of service delivered is substantially lower. For FY 2002 until FY 2008, Metro would determine the actual amount and update the chart in the following year’s budget. Each year, the amount of promised service would look like a big increase compared to previous years’.

In 2009, this practice stopped. Metro now no longer updates the budget document with the actual amount of service. Metro still reports the actual amount of service to the NTD, and the shortfall has grown to 18% of the proposed service level as of 2011.

Recently, The Washington Examiner reported a drop in ridership of about 5% compared to last year. In my opinion, the combination of decreasing ridership, decreasing service and increasing fares carries the specter of a transit “death spiral,” where service cuts reduce revenue, forcing greater fare increases, which in turn drives more people away from transit.

Note: I reached out to WMATA for comment earlier this week and initially planned to give them until Monday to respond. However, I also told the blogger behind Unsuck DC Metro about this issue so we could collaborate, with what I thought was an agreement not to publish this information yet; Unsuck went live this morning with a post based on the information I gave, so we are publishing now. If we get a response from WMATA, we will update this post.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.