Metro Riders Suggest 5¢ Fare Hikes, Use of Stimulus Funds to Avoid Bus Cuts

Metro proposes cutting some lines or segments and increasing the gap between bus arrival times, affecting 72 routes on 42 lines.
Metro proposes cutting some lines or segments and increasing the gap between bus arrival times, affecting 72 routes on 42 lines. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

After a week of public hearings on Metro's proposal to cut $13.6 million in Metrobus service, many riders said they would prefer to pay a nickel more in bus and rail fares than have any service cut to help close the agency's $29 million budget gap. A 5-cent across-the-board fare increase would eliminate any need for bus service cuts.

But it's doubtful that the board will have the votes to consider a fare increase this year. Even if District members, who blocked consideration of a 5-cent increase last month, changed their position, it's unlikely there would be enough time for another round of required public hearings on such a proposal before the board adopts a budget in June, members said.

Metro's proposal, to cut some lines or segments and increase the gap between bus arrival times, would affect 72 routes on 42 lines in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Hardest hit would be riders in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where the two suburbs are facing about $6.7 million of the proposed route reductions and schedule cuts.

More than 400 people from various walks of life attended the hearings last week and lobbied for their routes to be saved. Metro employees are compiling testimony from the nearly 100 speakers and written comments from more than 150 other riders and will present it to the board of directors. Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. will also recommend options to the board, which is likely to make a decision at a special meeting April 30.

Among the alternatives riders suggested was that Metro use $202 million in federal stimulus funds to close the gap. But Virginia and Maryland board members have said they are concerned that using one-time funds would dig a bigger hole for the agency the next year.

"It would create a much bigger budget problem . . . with no solution in sight for next year other than a very large fare increase, which we would not like to impose on our riders," said Maryland board member Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's finance committee.

However, Maryland state officials are exploring ways to preserve some service and are asking Montgomery and Prince George's county officials to consider using their own stimulus funds to offset cuts for one year, officials said.

The current proposal affects only Metrobus service. But the board could also consider some Metrorail measures that would marginally affect service, including closing some entrances at stations with multiple entrances.

MetroRiders.Org, a riders' group, noted that the public hearings took place after the important decisions had already been made.

"For the WMATA board to make the decision for the riders to cut service instead of allowing a 5-cent increase, if that's what the riders wanted, I think that is simply wrong, and I think that the WMATA board should reconsider that aspect if the riders would prefer that to the cuts," said Cindy Snow, a Germantown resident.

One of the most impassioned pleas came from a single mother who used to ride the P17, 18 and 19 buses because she had no choice. That is the Oxon Hill-Fort Washington line that runs to downtown Washington during weekday rush hours. The proposal calls for rerouting service to the Southern Avenue Metro station.

"I was on it as a single mother without any form of transportation whatsoever, trying to get back and forth to day care, to work and to run errands," said the woman, Rep. Donna Edwards (D), who represents Maryland's Fourth District.

Edwards said she knows from personal experience that the cuts would hurt some of the region's most challenged and vulnerable communities: senior citizens, people with disabilities, children and struggling workers. Some get on early in the morning, take two buses to a Metro train to get to work and ride public transportation an hour and a half each way, not because they want to, but "because they have to," she said.

She urged Metro to use the stimulus money that she and other members of Congress fought to get passed. "You need to use those to stop the service cuts," she said. "That's what it's intended for."

Montgomery Blair High School student Aaron Burger told the board that actions today will affect future ridership.

Teenagers think transit is cool, he said.

"We like it. It's fun. It's independent. It gets us out of the house," he said.

If teens grow up with access to public transportation, "we will continue going through our lives relying on the system to get us places. We will be your next users." But if Metro makes "us iffy about whether there will be a bus . . . we will start relying on driving cars, and we cannot sustain our society on everyone using a gasoline-powered vehicle and filling up the roads."

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