Metro Votes to Tap Rainy-Day Fund to Avoid Service Cuts

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

The Metro board voted 5 to 1 to avert all but a handful of Metrobus service cuts yesterday by tapping a rainy-day fund to close a $13.6 million shortfall in next year's $1.3 billion operating budget.

The operating reserve fund is not big enough to close the gap completely, so Metro is eliminating three bus routes and some off-peak service on a fourth route and charging express fares on three routes in suburban Maryland. Five Metrobus routes in Alexandria are also being consolidated into one. There are no service cuts in the District.

The cuts are far less severe than the proposal aired at public hearings two weeks ago. That plan would have affected 72 routes on 42 bus lines across the region with an average daily ridership of 60,000 trips. The agreement reached yesterday also calls for additional subsidies from the jurisdictions served by Metro.

The routes to be eliminated are the L7 in Montgomery County and some off-peak service on the Z2 in Silver Spring; and the C7 and C9, which run from Greenbelt to Glenmont. Express fares ($3.10 cash/$3 SmarTrip) will be charged on the J7 and J9, along I-270 in Montgomery County, and the W19, on Indian Head Highway in Prince George's County. Those routes currently charge regular fare ($1.35 cash/$1.25 SmarTrip).

In Alexandria, the 21 A, B, C, D and F routes will be consolidated into one. Arlington County's ART bus will take over the 22B and 24P routes.

Chris Zimmerman, who represents Virginia on the board, was the sole dissenter. "I'm pleased that much of the bus service cuts were averted, but I don't think the manner in which the budget was balanced is in the best interest of the agency, the region or my jurisdiction," said Zimmerman, who is also an Arlington County Board member.

Using the operating reserve, he said, puts off Metro's problem until next year. He predicted that "we will be looking at a very big fare increase."

The board has been divided for months. More than 2,600 riders testified about the cuts, with almost 60 percent of the comments coming from residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which together would have absorbed about $7 million of the proposed cuts. The plan voted on yesterday totals about $3 million in cuts, officials said.

Maryland board member Peter Benjamin said the board was unable to save all bus service in the two Maryland suburbs. He said surplus funds, currently projected to be $9.5 million, will replenish the operating reserve.

Yesterday's decision came after the board met for more than three hours in closed session. Board Chairman Jim Graham said the closed session was dictated by "sensitive" budget issues with legal ramifications.

Rider groups blasted the lack of transparency.

"We're not surprised that the board negotiated today's final Metro budget compromises behind closed doors in violation of their own adopted procedures," said Jack Corbett of MetroRiders.org.

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