Metro Freezes Hiring in Many Areas to Shore Up Budget

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Metro officials ordered an immediate hiring freeze yesterday for workers not involved in public safety or the operation of trains, buses and service for the elderly and disabled in an effort to close a $116 million budget shortfall.

The action comes days after Metro managers proposed a fiscal 2008 spending plan that includes fare increases of as much as $2.10, more contributions from area taxpayers, reduced bus and rail service, and administrative cuts. The proposed operating budget, which would go into effect July 1, totals $1.2 billion.

Several board members have said they want the staff to look for more ways to trim costs before opting for fare increases and service cuts. Among the measures they want considered are cutting more positions, eliminating a proposed 5 percent raise for 1,600 nonunion employees and getting rid of 60 take-home cars.

Metro officials also announced yesterday a review of consultant contracts of more than $100,000 that don't directly affect service operations as another way to trim next year's budget.

However, John B. Catoe Jr., Metro's incoming general manager, suggested that the agency should move quickly to hire an independent firm to analyze Metro's staffing structure and offer trims for the 10,000-employee agency. Catoe has discussed his plan with board members and the agency's acting general manager, Jack Requa.

"We need to do a self-assessment of the way we run this organization," Catoe said in a statement. "I'm confident that what will come of this introspective analysis are recommendations for ways we can do our jobs more efficiently and save taxpayer dollars along the way."

Catoe, who is to take over the agency Jan. 29, has recommended hiring Gayland Moffat Consulting Inc. of Salt Lake City to conduct the review, he said in an interview. The firm has provided similar services in Los Angeles and other transit systems in which Catoe has worked, he said. Catoe's proposal would cap the contract at $350,000, far less than the $800,000 that Metro managers had initially budgeted. Catoe said he hopes it's approved Thursday and that recommendations for staff cuts are provided by mid-April.

Metro board member Jim Graham, who chairs the agency's budget committee, said in a statement that the measures are the first "but not the only steps we must take to ensure that we ultimately pass a budget next year that is fiscally responsible and customer-focused."

Under the proposed budget, fares would increase at all times for all subway riders, with the biggest increases during rush hour. There would also be a 35-cent rush-hour surcharge for those who travel through 19 heavily used downtown stations. Rush hour runs from 5 until 9:30 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. The surcharge would also be in effect from 2 to 3 a.m. Saturdays.

Metro officials are also recommending charging riders more for using old-style paper Farecards instead of electronic SmarTrip cards, which save the agency money.

Rush-hour subway riders who use Farecards would pay 65 cents to $1.75 more, depending on the length of the trip. Those who use SmarTrip would pay 15 to 45 cents more, not including the 35-cent surcharge, or "congestion fee." As a result, rush-hour rail riders could face up to a $2.10 fare increase if they paid with Farecards.

Bus fares would remain unchanged -- at $1.25 -- for riders who pay with SmarTrip or weekly passes. But they would go up 75 cents for those who pay cash. Metro is also proposing to eliminate about a dozen bus routes with low ridership, most of them in Virginia.

Officials will be holding public hearings on the budget over the next several months. No decision will be made until the spring.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company