By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007
Metro has scrapped a plan to raise fares because General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said he can work toward closing a budget shortfall by eliminating positions and tightening spending -- but he said a fare increase may be necessary as soon as next year.
Catoe has set aside a complicated plan that would have raised bus and train fares and fees at suburban parking lots. Rush-hour commuters would have paid significantly more than off-peak riders, and those who use paper farecards and travel to 19 heavily used downtown stations would have paid even more.
Catoe said he shelved the proposal, which would have raised $64 million, because it didn't make sense to have such an uneven pricing system, especially because it was designed to charge daily commuters more than other riders. He also said the budget could be balanced, at least for this year, through layoffs, cuts and other measures. The total shortfall is $116 million.
"I'm pretty confident that we will be able to close that gap," Catoe said in an interview yesterday. "We need to keep it simple. I don't want to put one group against another. We had congestion pricing, and on paper, it was a good concept. But the public doesn't like it."
Instead, Catoe said he would propose a fare-increase plan this summer or fall that would be tied to cost-of-living measures, such as the consumer price index. Fares would rise at regular intervals rather than by big jumps every few years.
That idea has already drawn criticism from some Metro board members.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs Metro's budget committee, said he supports Catoe's efforts to balance the budget without raising fares. But he said he has "serious questions" about Catoe's idea to link fares to the cost of living.
"I don't want something to be gussied up and repackaged and think it will be accepted because it has some index and occurs automatically," he said.
Catoe is also getting rid of a proposal that would have moved the subway system's opening time from 7 to 8 a.m. on weekends. He plans to keep a proposed 5 percent pay raise for nonunion employees.
After layoffs, he said, "we're going to have a smaller workforce that will be working a lot harder to pick up all of the extra duties."
After taking over in January, Catoe hired an outside consultant to "look at every position and every dime." This month, he announced that 100 positions will be eliminated from Metro's construction department, shrinking it by more than a third.
He plans to balance next year's budget through a combination of measures: more administrative cuts, a one-time transfer of funds from the capital budget to cover maintenance costs, and an accounting change that allows the agency to tap $12 million from unused farecards, money that is not counted as revenue.
Catoe has been meeting with department heads this week and has more meetings planned next week to identify positions that will be cut. He declined to provide an agency-wide total until all employees are informed. He said none of the layoffs will compromise service or safety.
But Catoe's proposals, which are scheduled to be discussed at next month's Metro budget committee meeting, will not resolve long-term financial needs. To address that issue, Catoe plans to ask the board to consider a comprehensive fare policy and seek input from riders, he said.
Under his plan, fare increases would be automatically triggered when the consumer price index rises to a certain level. "People can adapt to a small adjustment on a more periodic basis versus a large increase once in a while," Catoe said.
"We will make proposals, and we will do extensive outreach to the public," he said. "We did not do that in the last [fare] recommendations."
Board member Chris Zimmerman, who represents Virginia and has pushed for a similar fare structure, said he supports a more predictable basis for increases.
"It's not a good idea to raise fares every year or in response to whatever the current budgetary crisis is," he said. "You can't have fares stay where they are, so you need a rational basis that is set on certain regular intervals so customers know when it's going to happen."
Under the original budget proposal, Metro officials had also recommended increasing daily parking fees at lots and garages by 75 cents. Yesterday, Catoe said he is not planning to seek a parking increase this year.
Instead, parking will be part of the agency's comprehensive look at ways to increase revenue. "Are we maximizing the potential out there, from advertising, from parking, from joint development?" he said. "For the longer term, everything is on the table. We need to review all the revenue sources that we have."
The recommended fare increases would have been the first in three years. The first-of-its-kind proposal was designed to raise money, spread out the times that riders take the subway and encourage more use of electronic SmarTrip cards.
In previous years, Metro has raised fares for all riders without regard to boarding times. In fiscal 2005, for instance, the minimum subway fare increased 15 cents to $1.35, and the local bus fare rose a nickel to $1.25.
The proposed 2008 operating budget, which goes into effect July 1, is $1.2 billion, 9 percent higher than the current one. The spending plan also calls for an 8 percent increase from taxpayers through subsidies paid by jurisdictions where Metro operates.