Metro considers service cuts to close funding gap

March 31, 2011

Metrorail riders could wait longer for trains, and some bus riders could lose their routes if Maryland, Virginia and the District can’t make up a $72 million shortfall in Metro’s operating budget for the next fiscal year.

Metro officials said Thursday that they have given the agency’s board of directors a list of potential service cuts to close the gap in the proposed $1.47 billion operating budget that would take effect July 1. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles asked local jurisdictions to come up with the missing $72 million but submitted the list at the board’s request, officials said.

Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal said the possible cuts are designed to have the least impact on passengers.

“They’re slight modifications” in service, Kissal said.

The list had not been made public because it is considered a “working document,” a Metro spokeswoman said. Metro officials said it includes money-saving changes considered last year, including lengthening waits between Metrorail trains by two to three minutes, closing some rail station entrances and cutting some “underperforming” bus routes.

Cutting late-night weekend service is not being considered, Kissal said, but some stations could be closed temporarily during late-night hours to speed up track work.

During a finance and administration committee meeting Thursday, board members said they will not raise fares to close the gap because they do not want to impose an increase two years in a row. Metro implemented a $109 million package of fare increases last year, the largest raise in the transit system’s 35-year history. In public hearings last year, passengers said they would pay more to keep their current service.

Kissal said that local officials had not told Metro whether their governments can afford to make up the $72 million shortfall or some part of it. Any proposed service cuts would have to go to public hearings in May and be approved by the board in June. They would take effect in September, she said.

The list of cuts under consideration will be made public at least by April 14, when the board is scheduled to vote on which ones to put out for public comment.

Some board members said they were reluctant to reduce any service.

“Maryland would be very uncomfortable in recommending service cuts,” said board member Kathy Porter. “That’s not something we want to do.”

But Metro passengers who want their state and local governments to cover the shortfall would have to compete for tight public funding against school children, potholed roads, and government employees facing furloughs and layoffs. Even without the $72 million shortfall, local jurisdictions would have to pay a combined $693 million in subsidies next fiscal year to cover 45 percent of Metro’s operating budget.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a Metro board member, told colleagues, “In general, I’d like to see as many options as possible out there” for closing the budget gap.

Kissal said Metro had already cut $74 million from the operating budget by finding “efficiency” savings, such as turning some administrative jobs once filled by sworn Transit Police officers into lower-cost civilian positions. Other options for raising money include selling naming rights to rail stations and keeping preventive maintenance at current levels, Kissal said.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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