Metro plans only minor service changes

Metro riders may remember 2011 as the antidote to 2010. The Metro board is scheduled to approve a budget Thursday that is balanced without fare increases or major changes in service. It’s pretty much what Metro General Manager Richard Sarles proposed in January, and a far cry from last year’s rounds of public hearings and fare increases that stretched from winter through summer.

In fact, most riders will have no reason to cry at all about this budget. On June 9, the board’s finance committee ditched a proposal to reduce weekend train service and eliminate a Northwest D.C. bus route that has many defenders. This is how things stand in the transit budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and ends June 30, 2012.

Budget basics

Board members from Virginia, Maryland and the District supported this budget in the June 9 committee meeting, so its approval by the full board is virtually certain.

Totals: The fiscal 2012 operating budget, the one used to pay for current expenses, will be about $1.5 billion. The capital budget, the one used to pay for long-term improvements, will be $1 billion.

Operating expenses: The transit authority said this month that it expects it will cost $813 million to operate the train system. That would be 55.5 percent of the operating budget. The bus system will cost $534.4 million, 36.5 percent of the budget. MetroAccess, the paratransit system for riders with disabilities, will cost $116 million, or 8 percent of the budget. Labor and fringe benefits account for about two-thirds of the operating budget. Fuel and utilities are $148 million. Casualty and liability payments are $29 million.

Money sources: The balanced budget anticipates revenue from rail operations of $663.5 million, or 45.3 percent of total revenues, according to Metro documents. The next biggest source of revenue is the anticipated payment of $621.6 million by the local jurisdictions that are part of the Metro service area. That would be 42.5 percent of the budget. Bus revenue is pegged at $141.7 million, or 9.7 percent. MetroAccess would account for $6.3 million, or 0.4 percent.

Public comment

This year, the board chose to go to the public with a proposal to reduce the frequency of weekend train service. Riders often complain about the current level of weekend service, so the negative response to the board’s proposal should have surprised no one. However, the board did widen the opportunities for public comment on the transit system by holding open houses and town hall meetings and by conducting an online survey, in addition to scheduling six traditional public hearings. The transit staff reported to the board on the public feedback.

The hearings: Six hearings were held in Maryland, the District and Virginia to fulfill Metro’s obligation to consult the public on major changes in service. Like hearings about road projects, hearings about transit service usually don’t draw a wide segment of the public, even though the change would affect many thousands of travelers.

During the hearings, 66 people testified. The majority were from the District. About a third of those who testified spoke against the elimination of the E6 Metrobus route in the Chevy Chase area of Northwest Washington. (Proposals to cut individual bus routes often draw the biggest turnouts at transit hearings.) The next biggest theme this year was opposition to the proposed cuts in weekend rail service.

Other comments: A Metro staff report tallies “approximately 4,244 inputs” received via all methods during the public comment period. Again, most of that was about the E6 route. Metro received two petitions containing 1,505 signatures opposing the elimination of the route.

Riders also expressed their frustrations with the performance of SmarTrip cards and the SmarTrip call center, problems loading bus passes onto SmarTrip cards, the out-of-service escalators and elevators, the complexity of the fare structure, breakdowns of Metro equipment and the infrequent sightings of transit police.

What to expect

Metrorail: The schedule for rail service will not change, but the transit staff does plan on modifying the pattern of weekend track work. Transit managers say they hope to move away from having trains share tracks around work zones. Instead, they say, they will more often opt to completely shut sections of lines on weekends to increase the efficiency of repair work.

Metrobus: The E6 route will not be eliminated, but some other bus service changes are coming in the next few months.

• A new service between the Pentagon and the Mark Center on Seminary Road will accommodate some of the military employees affected by the national base realignment program. Also in Virginia, the 3Y route will be extended and trips will be added on the 22A route.

• The K1 and N8 routes in the District will be eliminated.

• To improve the efficiency of buses through a congested area in the District, Metro will shorten Routes 70 and 71 to operate only between Silver Spring and Archives at all times and will reduce their frequency during rush hours. A new Route 74 will operate between Fort McNair/Buzzard Point and Gallery Place on weekdays between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m.

• The Anacostia special fare will be eliminated, increasing the fare on certain D.C. bus routes from $1 to $1.50 for SmarTrip and to $1.70 for cash. On those routes, the bus-to-rail and rail-to-bus transfer value will increase from 50 cents to $1.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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