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Metro Expects More Deficits

Some on Board Reject Higher Fares

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004; Page B01

Little more than a week after higher train and bus fares went into effect, Metro officials said yesterday that they expect a $40 million shortfall in next year's budget and a $30 million deficit the year after that.

But several Metro board members said that unlike the past two years, they will oppose any fare or fee increases to balance the budget.

Metro board member David A. Catania said jurisdictions should contribute more for transit. (File Photo)

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"Three years in a row of fare increases is too much," said Marcell Solomon, who represents Prince George's County on the Metro board. "We need to find a way to use taxpayer dollars instead of a fare increase to pay for this gap."

Solomon and other board members said they have heard criticism from the public and elected officials about higher fees and fares, crowded conditions on trains and buses and a general deterioration of transit service.

"We need to find any creative solutions that are out there and not put this on the backs of the riders next year," said Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County on the board.

Metro's operating costs are paid by a combination of passenger fares and parking fees, subsidies from local governments served by the rail and bus system, and revenue from advertising and other sources. Fares and fees were stable for eight years until the Metro board raised them last year. They were increased again June 27.

Budget analysts at Metro blame the same factors for driving expenses each year -- health care insurance for the agency's 10,000 workers, pension costs and rising fuel prices. Operating costs also are expected to increase next year because Metro will open three new rail stations -- New York Avenue on the Red Line and Morgan Boulevard and Largo Town Center on the Blue Line.

In raising fares and fees last week, Metro board Chairman Robert J. Smith said he wanted to slow the growth rate of the subsidies paid by local governments and have passengers pay a greater share of operating costs.

Local governments are still paying higher Metro subsidies this year compared with last year, but they are paying less than they would have if fares and fees had not been raised. The increases that took effect last week are expected to generate about $29 million in revenue, more than enough to fill a $24 million deficit in the current budget. The remaining $5 million is being used to offset those subsidies paid by local governments. Metro's operating budget for this fiscal year is $940 million.

David A. Catania, who represents the District on the Metro board, said the financial burden must be shifted from riders to local governments.

"It's time for the jurisdictions to step up to the plate," said Catania, who pledged to fight any attempt to raise fares or fees next year. "If you have year after year of fare increases, you're going to see people taking alternative forms of transportation. Three years is going to do just that. It's the wrong direction."

In other developments, one of Metro's cost-savings ideas for the current budget year is being reversed. Last week, the transit system shortened all trains after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday from four cars to two to shave $1 million in operating costs. After complaints poured in from riders about crowding on the shorter trains, Chief Executive Richard A. White reinstated four-car trains. This week, transit workers posted at stations after 10 p.m. counted passengers and confirmed that crowding on the trains was significant and that cutting the trains back to two cars would create uncomfortable and even unsafe conditions, especially on the heavily traveled Red Line, White said.

White said he will continue to monitor ridership and match the length of the trains to the number of passengers. He said he is likely to seek approval in two weeks to permanently restore four-car service.

Metro directors also said they would consider restoring another $1.6 million to the current budget to help alleviate crowding on 34 bus routes. The money would be used to hire drivers and add 20 buses to those lines with intense crowding.

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