By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009
The jurisdictions served by Metro have come up with $80 million in possible service cuts to help the agency balance its budget, including such drastic measures as closing the subway system at 10 every night and eliminating Yellow Line service weeknights after 9:30 and on weekends, according to area government officials.
The list of proposed cuts is scheduled to be presented to the Metro board next week as it grapples with how to plug the largest budget shortfall in the agency's 33-year history.
But some measures, such as the early Metrorail closing, are likely to generate so much outrage that "no one believes it's going to be implemented," said one suburban government official who has seen the list. He declined to be identified because the list has not been made public.
Metrorail is open until midnight weekdays and 3 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Night and weekend ridership have grown rapidly in recent years, reflecting the development surge around Verizon Center, Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor in the District.
In fact, the list of cuts is so politically sensitive that no one from the regional Metro advisory group who signed off on the measures is willing to sit at the table and give the PowerPoint presentation to the board's finance committee Thursday, sources said. And Metro staffers are equally reluctant to make the presentation because they do not want to be associated with the proposals.
Local officials said anticipated strong opposition from riders to service cuts could trigger a more candid discussion and give board members the necessary political cover to talk publicly about raising fares.
The board raised fares and fees last January, the largest such increases in Metro's history. At the time, the board promised not to consider another increase until July 2010.
"The JCC does not want to own this recommendation or proposal or whatever you want to call it," said the official, referring to the Jurisdictional Coordinating Committee, a regional advisory group to Metro. "We only did it kicking and screaming, because we felt that fare increases and other expense reductions had to be considered."
Metro has a $154 million deficit in next year's $1.3 billion operating budget, or about 12 percent. Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has said he will cut $81 million by eliminating 313 positions and trimming other administrative expenses. The first round of staffing cuts is expected to begin this month.
The remaining $73 million would have to come from service cuts unless the jurisdictions can provide Metro with more subsidies or riders pay higher fares.
Public hearings on potential cuts are expected to be held next month, and the Metro board is expected to approve a final budget in June. Some board members have hinted that they would be open to fare increases if riders said they preferred those to service cuts. "I expect to hear some of that" at public hearings, said board member Catherine M. Hudgins, who represents Virginia. "I think the best way to arrive at a decision is to get input from the community."
Catoe declined to provide specifics about reductions proposed by the advisory panel. "We do not want to cut service, and it is gut-wrenching to know that some of their discussions on what to cut are so severe that it's possible that some people won't be able to get to their jobs if they are implemented," he said in a written statement.
The advisory group came up with 10 percent more in potential cuts than requested because it recognized that "some portion of the proposals will be viewed as unacceptable," the local official said.
"This is what we were asked to submit," the official said. "Our expectation is that the board will take that list and say, 'Good job, submit it to public hearings,' or they'll say, 'We'll submit it to public hearings and submit these fare changes.' "
The cuts are roughly split between Metrorail and Metrobus, which together carry about 1.2 million trips on an average weekday.
Bus service reductions total about $45 million and include eliminating three dozen to four dozen bus routes, including some that are well-used, sources said.
On the rail side, closing the subway at 10 every night would save $31 million a year.
The Yellow Line, which has the lowest ridership of Metro's five lines, runs from Huntington in Fairfax County to Fort Totten in the District, and overlaps with the Green Line in the District and the Blue Line in Fairfax County.
The proposal to cut Yellow Line service after 9:30 on weeknights and all day on weekends would save about $3.2 million, sources said. A shuttle service -- it's unclear whether it would be rail or bus -- would ferry passengers between Huntington and King Street in Alexandria. Another proposal calls for eliminating Yellow Line service between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten. Those stations are also served by the Green Line.
Among other possible rail service cuts: increasing the intervals between trains on Saturdays to 20 minutes and increasing intervals on Sunday to 30 minutes; reducing Red Line service between Grosvenor and Shady Grove during midday; opening weekdays at 5:30 a.m. instead of 5 a.m.; closing some low-usage Metro stations on weekends; and closing some entrances to Metro stations with multiple entrances on weekdays after 8 p.m. and all day on weekends.