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Metro Weighs Budget Fixes

Metro chief John Catoe rejects an earlier close for the rail system -- unless there is total economic collapse.
Metro chief John Catoe rejects an earlier close for the rail system -- unless there is total economic collapse. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Metro is considering charging for parking at its lots and garages on weekends and holidays to help close the agency's budget gap, officials said yesterday.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said he is following up on a rider's suggestion from an online chat Friday. That doesn't mean Metro will do away with free parking, Catoe cautioned. "I want to be clear. I will look at this because it was recommended by the public, but I can't say whether I'm going to recommend it to the board."

Transit agency officials are looking for ways to address a budget deficit of $154 million in next year's $1.3 billion operating budget, or about 12 percent. Catoe has said he will cut $81 million by eliminating 313 positions -- about half of which are filled -- and trimming administrative costs.

Unless the jurisdictions served by Metro provide additional subsidies or the agency is able to generate more revenue or find other administrative cuts, officials have said they will have to consider service reductions or other measures to come up with the remaining $73 million.

At the request of the Metro board, a regional advisory group representing the jurisdictions served by Metro has discussed service cuts. The cuts include minor measures such as weekend closings of some station entrances at stops that have more than one. They also include drastic measures such as closing the system at 10 p.m. daily and eliminating Yellow Line service weeknights after 9:30 and on weekends.

The drastic measures were included to spur more candid discussions about fare increases and expense cuts, according to advisory group representatives.

No recommendations have been made, but riders are worried.

"Among unpleasant options, imposing weekend parking fees at Metrorail lots is sure a lot better than service cuts or fare increases," said Jack Corbett, co-founder of MetroRiders.org, a user group. Corbett said the group believes that increased contributions from the sponsoring jurisdictions is the best way to address the budget gap. "Riders' fares were hugely increased last year," he said. "Now it's time for the governments to pony up more."

Metro board Chairman Jim Graham said any talk of service cuts is premature. "This has needlessly agitated our riding public," he said. The board must first continue "extensive scrubbing" of expenses and get a "full understanding" of how the pending economic stimulus package could help Metro's budget.

The advisory group's discussions probably will not be part of Thursday's budget work session, he said.

Catoe ruled out shutting down Metro early. "We're not closing our rail system at 10 o'clock unless there's a whole collapse of the local economy," he said yesterday. "It ain't gonna happen."

In the past, riders have suggested that Metro raise money by doing away with free parking on weekends and holidays. Doing so would require a vote by Metro's board.

Daily parking at most Metro lots and garages is $4.25 to $4.75; the fees rose 75 cents in January 2008, when the largest fare and fee increases in Metro history went into effect. Metro kept weekend and holiday parking free to boost off-peak ridership; in recent years, some of the biggest ridership growth has occurred outside rush hours, at night and on weekends.

Catoe said staffers have to determine whether any potential revenue would be offset by a loss in riders. During the last fare increase, ridership continued to rise, contrary to suggestions that it would drop, Catoe said.

Metro has nearly 60,000 parking spaces. Although some lots are used heavily on weekends, none fill up, according to spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. Most of the revenue from daily parking goes to Metro; some is directed to the jurisdictions where the lots are located. Metro expects to collect about $50 million in parking revenue this year, which includes daily, reserved and metered parking.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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