Cost Cuts, Service Changes Can Help End Budget Gap, Board Says

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

Metro board members said yesterday that they were confident that they could close a $28.8 million budget gap by cutting costs, changing services and getting more money from the federal stimulus package and member jurisdictions.

"We are awfully close," said Peter Benjamin, a board member from Maryland.

But several budget proposals offered yesterday exposed the rift between suburban board members and their counterparts closer in. For example, a proposal to charge for weekend parking was quickly rejected by suburban members, who said it was unfair and would reduce ridership.

Suburban members also looked at a proposal to reduce bus service, but District and Prince George's County representatives fought that idea.

So a recipe to close the budget gap will probably rely on tweaks, twists and more money from member jurisdictions.

New board Chairman Jim Graham of the District said the remaining gap is small when compared with Metro's $1 billion-plus budget. He also said the gap would be closed by June without any major service reductions or fare increases.

Board members were told that charging for parking on the weekends would raise more than $3 million a year. But implementing that change would cost Metro more than $1.7 million. The additional revenue was based on projections that riders would use 25 percent of the 57,000-plus parking spaces. But when Metro officials checked last weekend, only about 7 percent of the spaces were full.

"Does it net to anything?" asked Chris Zimmerman, a member from Arlington County. "At $100,000 or $200,000, it's a lot less interesting."

Catherine M. Hudgins, a member from Fairfax County, said the real question is whether free parking on weekends takes cars off the region's roads. Charging for parking might encourage people to just drive into the District instead of taking Metro, adding to traffic and pollution.

Graham asked staff to look at charging a $1 parking fee at busier stations and to investigate whether there are any non-food retail opportunities that Metro can bring into stations to provide amenities for customers and raise revenue.

Under consideration by the Metro staff are such suggested services as flowers, dry cleaning, gourmet take-away food and the sale of hats and umbrellas. But any major revenue would have to come from newsstands that also sold food and beverages, which is against Metro policy.

Yesterday was Graham's debut as chairman. It is his 10th year on the board and the second time he has served as chairman. The last time was 2003.

In an opening speech, he acknowledged the tough economic times and said Metro would have to do more with less.

He also said he wanted to ensure that riders are provided with accurate information about when the next bus would arrive and broaden the use of SmarTrip cards on buses, which allow passengers to board faster than when riders use cash.

He praised efforts to implement express bus service on 16th Street.

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