OFF THE RAILS : Fitful Money Management

Metro Spending Often Veers From Core Transit Mission

By Jo Becker and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Last of four articles

Even as Metro officials complain that tight finances are crippling their ability to run the Washington area's subways and buses, they continue to pour millions into programs that have little to do with transporting passengers.

The agency spent close to $40 million for a massive training and maintenance facility that five years after the purchase is overbudget and underused. Millions more are needed to finish renovations.

When senior agency attorneys wanted two new window offices and a 1,440-square-foot law library, Metro spent $270,000 to accommodate them.

Metro paid more than $400,000 for a "culture change" project to teach managers to operate less like bureaucrats and more like business executives, an experiment officials now say was a bust. And the agency's inability to control overtime has led to $100,000-plus salaries for numerous mechanics, bus drivers and train operators.

Twice in the past two years, Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White has asked riders to pay higher fares, saying he had trimmed his budget to the core and his only choice was to charge more or cut service. In February, he told Congress that lack of funds had forced him to defer maintenance, spend less on customer service and cut back on cleaning the stations.

But Metro documents and interviews portray a transit agency with inconsistent spending priorities, an uneven record of cost containment and a board of directors that sometimes makes political decisions that drive up costs.

Metro's money management has taken on new urgency because the agency is in the midst of an unprecedented campaign for dollars.

After winning an emergency infusion of $1.8 billion, it is seeking an additional $1.5 billion from the federal government and is asking for a stream of permanent funding, such as a regional tax. Metro receives subsidies from the communities it serves and yearly allotments from the federal government to buy big-ticket items such as rail cars and buses.

Those subsidies, passenger fares, advertising and other revenue pay Metro's operating costs. Those costs are projected to exceed $1 billion in the fiscal year that starts in July, a nearly 50 percent increase in six years, according to the agency.

The only consistent scrutiny of Metro's finances falls to its 12-member board of directors, which lacks a staff and must rely on the agency for budget information and analysis. The current budget wasn't printed and distributed to the board until months after it took effect; directors approved it based on summary presentations.

Those who try to delve deeper say they often find themselves stymied. "They don't want to give us anything we can use to beat them over the head," said Jim Hamre, Arlington County's transit program coordinator, who advises Arlington's representative to the Metro board.

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