Service Cuts Proposed to Reduce Shortfall

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. yesterday recommended a preliminary package of bus and train service reductions to help close the agency's budget deficit, even as managers outlined how they had found more revenue and expense cuts to shrink the gap from $73 million to about $29 million.

The $29 million does not include any service cuts outlined yesterday. Those cuts total about $21 million. They were not endorsed by board members, nor were any decisions made. Instead, the board's finance committee asked for time for the jurisdictions served by Metro to assess the recommendations.

The board will hold a special budget session early next month to decide what, if any, service cuts will be set for public hearings.

Proposals include eliminating overlapping bus service on 36 routes regionwide; increasing the gap between bus arrivals on about four dozen routes regionwide; increasing the gap between train arrivals on the fringes of rush-hour, on weeknights, at midday and on Saturdays; and closing some low-usage entrances at six stations on weekends and at five stations on weeknights.

"This is the first time we've recommended service cuts," Catoe told the board yesterday, talking about the current budget cycle. "We don't want to do any of this," he said. "But we have a shortage of revenue and we looked at what could we do that would have a minimal impact on service."

The proposals, if implemented, would still allow riders "to go from point A to point B," he said.

Even if the Metro board agrees to the recommendations -- and several members said yesterday that they would be opposed -- the agency would still face a shortfall of about $7.4 million for the fiscal year that starts in July.

The board also agreed to consider several proposals that Chairman Jim Graham wants explored as ways to raise more revenue, including charging for parking at Metro lots and garages on weekends, providing MetroAccess paratransit service at the minimum level needed to meet federal guidelines and installing retail kiosks near Metrorail stations.

"We need a broader menu of choices," Graham, who represents the District, told reporters after the meeting. "Lots of oxes we could gore."

Unlike more-draconian measures discussed by a regional advisory group this month, there were no recommendations to shut down the rail system early. Staff members said the service cuts would have to take effect by the end of June for the savings to have the maximum benefit in the fiscal 2010 budget.

Metro officials initially projected a $154 million deficit in the agency's $1.3 billion operating budget. Catoe said he would make $81 million in administrative cuts by eliminating 313 positions and making other adjustments. Layoffs began yesterday, with 40 people receiving notices, officials said.

That left a $73 million gap. At the board's request, finance officials readjusted their estimates by budgeting more revenue from such measures as eliminating paper transfers. They reduced operating expenses for items such as preventive maintenance, relying on capital funds instead. Those changes shrank the gap by an additional $44 million, leaving a deficit of $29 million.

On the rails, Metro is proposing to run two fewer trains on each line, in each direction, between 6 and 7 a.m., even though riders would still be paying rush-hour fares. The agency also is proposing increasing the time between trains from 12 to 15 minutes between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. and from 15 to 20 minutes between 9:30 and midnight on week nights.

Recommendations for reductions in bus service were chosen to minimize the impact on riders. In most cases, there is alternate bus service on other routes, officials said.

Board member Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County, said his trip to Metro headquarters in the District yesterday included a ride on the Columbia Heights-Pentagon City bus line. He called it the most heavily used route in Virginia. And he noted that the 16G, H and W buses on that line are on the list for reduced service during peak periods.

Board members are reluctant to talk about the politically sensitive subject of fare increases, and that issue did not come up yesterday. But some local government officials have said that anticipated strong opposition from riders to service cuts could trigger more candid discussions. If during the public hearing process riders say they would rather pay more than see service reduced, that would provide the necessary political cover for board members to seek higher fares.

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