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$1 Billion Budget Proposed For Metro

No Change Sought In Fares, Parking

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page B01

Metro managers yesterday proposed a $1 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year that would hold passenger fares and parking fees steady but seeks a 10.4 percent increase in subsidies from local governments.

The proposed budget, which the Metro board will review before adopting a final version in the spring, marks the first time Metro's spending plan has reached a billion dollars. It would be a 6.5 percent increase over the current budget, with most of that spending driven by wages, health insurance, pension payments, fuel for buses and electricity for trains.

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The cost of operating three new stations -- New York Avenue on the Red Line and Morgan Boulevard and Largo Town Center on the Blue Line -- also will contribute to the increase. The budget would take effect July 1.

Metrorail is the second-busiest subway in the country, behind New York's, and carries as many riders as the San Francisco, Atlanta and Philadelphia subways combined. When bus operations are included, Metro is the nation's fourth-largest transit system.

As part of his proposed budget, Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White wants to spend $9 million to fix an array of problems that have troubled the transit system this year, shaking public confidence and raising concerns about reliability and safety.

White's budget calls for $1 million to add 14 track inspectors to the 27 inspectors now authorized, allowing more rigorous rail examinations.

Inspectors are supposed to detect rail flaws before they lead to a crack, which can cause a train to derail. But cracks have been discovered five times this year, all of them on the Red Line. In early October, a cracked rail at Fort Totten delayed service for about a half-hour. On Oct. 22, a 54-inch horizontal break at Judiciary Square forced a shutdown of the Red Line for 40 minutes during the morning rush while workers searched for other problems. On Nov. 29, three cracks were found in the tracks between the Bethesda and Friendship Heights stations.

Metro's rail is inspected visually by track walkers and by ultrasound equipment designed to detect flaws invisible to the human eye. Metro has increased ultrasound inspections from twice a year to five times a year and wants to intensify the visual inspections as well, White said. He also is seeking $1 million to hire 10 more laborers and buy enough material to repair flaws.

To handle crowds, White is proposing to spend $1.3 million to hire seven people to supervise platforms at highly crowded stations and an additional 10 station managers to post at busy stations to answer questions from passengers and solve problems.

To improve the appearance of stations as well as trains and buses, White is asking for $400,000 for six workers to replace light bulbs at stations and $1.7 million to hire 26 janitors and reassign 14 others while giving their duties to a contractor. The expanded cleaning crew would allow Metrobuses to get a significant cleaning every week instead of every two weeks.

White also wants to spend $1.3 million to improve customer service so the public can get speedy, accurate responses to questions and complaints. "We all know we're not meeting needs and demands of our customers," White said. "We're overwhelmed."

Metro has raised fares and parking fees twice in the past two years, angering many of the passengers who take 1.2 million trips a day on its buses and trains. Metro riders pay a higher proportion of the operating costs of their subway rides than do their counterparts at any other subway system in the country, except for New York. In October, the most recent month for which figures are available, fares paid 85.1 percent of the cost of a subway ride.

The rest comes from subsidies from local governments and advertising and other revenue collected by Metro.

By keeping fares and fees constant, White is seeking to transfer some of the burden of the new budget to the jurisdictions that help pay for Metro. His proposed 10.4 percent subsidy increase is more than twice the historical norm.

At least one board member is uneasy about the subsidy proposal. "It's very concerning to us," said Metro Board Chairman Robert J. Smith, who represents Maryland on the board.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company