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Metro seeks rider input on budget gap earlier in process

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By Lena H. Sun
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Metro riders took advantage of a public forum Monday night to vent to General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. and Metro board Chairman Jim Graham about unreliable buses and trains and even poorer customer service.

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"I hate Metro right now," said Charlene Volpe, a bartender from Reston who said delays have made her one of the subway's most angry and frustrated riders.

Volpe urged Metro officials to seek more federal funds, noting that Congress seems to be "bailing out every single entity" less deserving than the public transportation system in the nation's capital.

About two dozen riders showed up at the forum that Metro held to talk directly to riders and local officials about its estimated $144 million budget gap next year that will probably mean fare increases and possibly service cuts.

Tijwanna Phillips, a D.C. resident, said there should be no fare increases until service improves, especially on the bus.

"People are drinking, cursing and fighting on the bus," she said. And complaints don't prompt enough follow-up, she added.

Riders and others also said Metro's new budget needs to ensure a greater emphasis on safety, openness and accountability to restore public confidence after this summer's Red Line crash that killed nine and injured 80.

Monday's forum, at the U.S. Navy Memorial Auditorium, was the first of several intended to solicit public input earlier than in years past. The forums are seen as a way for Metro to prepare the public for an increase in fares and to pressure local governments to increase their subsidies.

The District, Maryland and Northern Virginia communities pay almost half of Metro's operating expenses. Given the harsh outlook for next year and revenue that is falling below expectations in this year's budget, one riders' group, MetroRiders.org, released a statement Monday saying it was realistic to expect that "everybody should have some skin in the game."

The group said it expected the Metro board to implement its 2007 policy to adjust fares every two years to keep pace with inflation -- in this case about 6 percent. Even raising fares 6 percent would cover less than $38 million of the gap, Metro officials said. Riders called on the jurisdictions served by Metro to contribute more to Metro's daily operations.

Expenses are rising because of pension losses in the stock market, higher energy costs and the growth of MetroAccess, the door-to-door service for disabled riders. Meanwhile, revenue is down because of falling advertising.

David Alpert, who runs a blog about transportation and development, http://www.greatergreaterwashington.org, suggested that Metro consider a policy that imposes a higher, third fare level for riders at the peak of rush hour. Many are federal government workers, he said, whose commutes are subsidized.

Riders also said that fare increases should not hit rail riders disproportionately. Possible increases in Metrobus fares and MetroAccess service for the disabled should be included, said Kevin Moore of MetroRiders.org.

In the past, such talk was "too politically sensitive" to be considered seriously, he said.

Reductions in bus and rail service should be the last option, riders said. Cheryl Cort, representing the Transit First Coalition of riders and other groups, said it would be unconscionable for state and local governments to spend billions on roads as transit service deteriorates.

Catoe asked Gerald Francis, Metro's deputy general manager, to meet individually with speakers to get specifics about their complaints and the lack of follow-up from Metro customer service.


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