Metro Facing Layoffs, Cutbacks

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

Metro faces a 13 percent shortfall in its $1.3 billion operating budget for next year, and officials have suggested cutting almost 900 positions and enacting the largest-ever cuts in train, bus and paratransit service, even as transit ridership in the region and across the country is soaring.

Agency officials said the budget difficulties reflect the grim economic reality facing local and state governments, which provide a substantial portion of Metro's funds. Transit agencies across the country also are facing service cuts.

"The budget year ahead is as bleak as the national economy," Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told board members.

The gap of $176 million is the largest in the agency's 33-year history. Unless board members and agency officials are able to make significant additional expense cuts or discover new revenue to plug the hole, riders could be facing $73 million in service reductions starting in July, officials said. They did not specify what might be cut.

Higher fares are not on the table under the proposal that Catoe presented yesterday to the board. Board members, however, could authorize fare increases, although that appears unlikely, given that Metro raised fares and fees last January and promised not to consider raising them again until July 2010.

"To close this $176 million gap, we propose to cut our projected expenses by $103 million," Catoe said. "Then, as a last resort we are proposing $73 million in service cuts."

Catoe said the agency has identified 891 positions, about 8 percent of the workforce, that would account for much of the $103 million in administrative and operational expense cuts. About half of the 891 positions are vacant. Of the positions being considered for elimination, 313 are administrative and 578 are service-related, which includes bus and train operators and mechanics.

Several longtime board members said they could not recall any time when the transit agency had been confronted by such sizable looming layoffs and service reductions.

"In my time on the board, there has never been anything of the magnitude of this type of service cut," said D.C. council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has represented the city on the board for 10 years.

Catoe said Metro plans to work with local governments in coming weeks to come up with recommendations for service reductions, which will be presented to the board. The transit agency has cut jobs and expenses over the years to fill budget gaps, but has not cut service in 13 years.

Service cuts that would have relatively less impact would be on less heavily used bus routes, which tend to be in the District, the jurisdiction that has the most Metrobus service. Service cuts are likely to resurrect the city vs. suburbs dynamic that dominated fare increase hearings in December 2007. City board members will push to equalize the pain of any service cuts among the jurisdictions. Suburban members probably will point to efficiencies that can be maximized by eliminating the lowest-performing bus routes.

"This pain has to be proportionally distributed," Graham said.

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