Metro board wants to keep options open for raising revenue

January 12, 2012

The Metro board’s finance committee wants to consider more options than those proposed by General Manager Richard Sarles to close a $116 million shortfall in the transit authority’s next budget.

Sarles had proposed significantly higher fares for people who use paper farecards; cutting day passes; and the elimination of a complicated surcharge for traveling during the system’s busiest times. Board members said Thursday they want to hear what the public has to say about those options. They also want input on a possible two-zone fare system and a 5-cent surcharge for travel through some popular stations.

At its Jan. 26 meeting, the board will finalize what options it wants to put before the public at hearings in February and March. Any fare changes would likely go into effect in July.

Sarles has proposed a $1.6 billion operating budget for fiscal 2013 that would raise rates on bus and rail by an average of about 5 percent. About $53 million of the $116 million needed to close the deficit would come from local jurisdictions, while the rest would come from fare increases. Sarles has also proposed a capital budget of about $900 million.

“We know the system got to where it was because of insufficient investment, insufficient maintenance and insufficient oversight,” said Alvin Nichols, a Metro board member from Prince George’s County. He called the fare increase and higher subsidies “painful.”

“The fare increase is sobering but necessary,” he said.

Riders have said they are frustrated at the talk of increasing fares because they experience too many delays and equipment outages and sometimes face long waits for trains.

Board member Muriel Bowser, who is also a D.C. Council member, worried that getting rid of the rush-hour surchargewould mean a $12 million loss in revenue, while bus riders would experience a 10-cent fare increase under Sarles’s proposal.

“To eliminate peak-of-the-peak means we’re looking to bus,” she said, noting that D.C. residents make up 50 percent of Metrobus riders.

Ten of the board members have joined the panel since January 2011, and many wanted to throw a variety of ideas on the table. One was to privatize Metro’s parking facilities and look more closely at employee pensions. Metro makes 100 percent of the contributions, and the agency’s labor and pension benefits account for $55 million of its expected cost increase for next fiscal year, officials have said.

Under the new plan, Metro would hire more than 1,000 people, which would cost $88 million in salaries and benefits; $62 million would come from the operating budget and the rest from the capital budget.

The new spots would include 448 positions in safety and maintenance, plus hiring train operators, police officers and station managers to help run the new Silver Line to Tysons Corner and the edge of Reston.

Some board members questioned hiring more people, given Metro’s 12 percent job vacancy rate and the cost of labor and pension benefits.

Tom Bulger, an alternate member from the District, said it was “not sustainable” to hire more employees, given the pension costs.

Tom Downs, a voting board member from the District, said that would be the “largest single expansion” in Metro history. He said there isn’t “a snowball’s chance” of Metro being able to hire that many people because its human resources department doesn’t have the capacity to process the applicants.

Sarles defended the planned hires, saying the agency needs to reduce the amount of overtime being worked. He added that the agency needs more people to help with its reconstruction and maintenance efforts.

The board also said it wants to consider different rates for paper farecard users and possibly keep some day passes. Sarles has proposed flat fares for paper users of $4 and $6, depending on the time of day. Board members said the fees may be too high and could push riders to use taxis, or D.C. Circulator buses, which charge $1.

Another idea the board wants to explore is a 5-cent levy at some stations, including Union Station and Rosslyn. Metro’s board discussed a similar surcharge at Union Station in 2010 to pay for station improvements, but never pursued the change.

hedgpethd@washpost.comhedgpethd@washpost.com

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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