Washington, D.C., Area Jurisdictions to Split Burden of Closing Metro Transit Agency's Budget Gap

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

The jurisdictions served by Metro will look for ways to increase their contributions to the transit agency and reduce bus service as the board continues to search for ways to close a $29 million budget gap.

Board members were unable to reach agreement yesterday after a heated 2 1/2 -hour meeting. A proposal pushed by District members, led by board Chairman Jim Graham, to use federal stimulus money to close the shortfall was opposed by the majority of members.

Using the one-time funds, they said, would be shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible, pushing problems into the following year. To deal with the additional shortfall and other cost increases, the jurisdictions would have to raise subsidy payments in fiscal 2011 by an estimated $125 million to $150 million, 23 percent to 28 percent more than current levels, according to a budget analysis.

Delaying the problem could also mean bigger fare increases and even deeper service cuts, members said.

In a compromise, the board agreed that each jurisdiction would increase its contribution, reduce Metrobus service or use some combination of the two to close its share of the $29 million gap. Cuts could affect only routes in a particular jurisdiction and could not negatively affect other jurisdictions. Maryland's share is the largest, about $16 million. Fairfax County has to come up with about $4 million and the District, about $5 million.

The board finance committee will meet in two weeks to finalize the options for presentation at public hearings in April. Given the tight deadlines, any service cuts might have to be larger than first anticipated.

Maryland and Virginia members wanted to ask for public comment on a third option, an across-the-board fare and fee increase of up to 10 cents for Metrobus and Metrorail trips and daily parking. A 10-cent increase would generate about $35 million in revenue.

"The service we provide is the most critical in the region," said Catherine Hudgins, who represents Virginia. "We have loyal customers, and we should trust the intelligence of customers and let them weigh in on the process."

Jeff McKay, who also represents Virginia, said the board was obligated to deal with all options, however unpopular, including service cuts, which he likened to "the elephant in the room."

"As stewards of public money, we have no choice but to be honest with our customers," he said.

But Graham said the District would not support a fare increase, even for purposes of discussion. Under Metro rules, fare increases and service cuts must be aired at public hearings, but the board does not have to impose them. Graham argued that District riders, especially bus passengers, would be hit hardest by any fare increases.

That drew a swift retort from Hudgins: "You see a regional system as a District-impact system."

Some riders have said they would prefer a fare increase to any service reductions. "Everything ought to be on the table," said Ben Ross, spokesman for a new riders' group. "If service cuts are on the table, then fare increases should be on the table."

Metro is eliminating 313 positions, cutting overtime and controlling other costs to reduce expenses. Some of those actions will affect service, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said. Fewer cleaners will be available to pick up trash on the trains. There will be fewer staff members to help with crowd control during special events, and bus supervisors will have increased workloads, which could affect on-time performance.

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