Metro finds $36 million to fill this year's budget gap

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Metro officials say they can patch together as much as $36 million in stimulus funds, inaugural reimbursements and insurance money to plug a growing budget gap for this fiscal year.

The shortfall, the result of declining Metrorail ridership, is for the year that ends in June. A much bigger deficit looms for the year beginning July 1; budget preparations underway have already factored in a fare increase, Metro officials said.

Metro officials had forecast a shortfall for this year of at least $22.4 million based on July and August ridership. September's report brought more bad news. Ridership continues to drop because of growing unemployment in the District and slower service on the Red Line after this summer's fatal accident, according to a presentation scheduled for a Metro board committee meeting Thursday.

The presentation did not give updated figures for the shortfall, but Metro said it could tap the $36 million to close it. Officials said they could also squeeze additional savings from the way they process payroll and collect revenue and by optimizing schedules. No figures or details were provided.

As ridership has dropped, pushing revenue down, expenses have increased, including an additional $400,000 in overtime as a result of the Red Line crash, according to September's monthly financial report.

The transit agency outlined three key sources of funds:

-- Up to $20 million in stimulus funds for preventive maintenance;

-- $3.4 million from federal reimbursement received for Inauguration Day service (the full amount was $4 million, and $600,000 was already used);

-- $7 million from insurance funds to cover labor and material costs resulting from damage in the June 22 accident.

Metro had forecast that ridership would grow 3 percent across the board this year, compared with last year. But average weekday rail ridership in September, typically a strong month, was down 3 percent compared with last September, and bus ridership was down 6 percent from a year ago, according to September's monthly financial report.

Continuing the trend that began during the summer, the biggest drop in rail ridership was during the morning rush, with the majority of trips being work-related. The drop would have been even greater, the report said, but afternoon and evening baseball games made up for some of the losses in work-related trips during the afternoon rush.

Average weekday rail ridership in September was 729,551 trips, 6 percent below what was budgeted. Average weekday bus ridership was 486,000 trips, 10 percent below budget.

Officials have attributed ridership declines to growing D.C. unemployment, which rose from 10.6 percent in July to 11.4 percent in September; slower service and fewer trains on the Red Line immediately after the crash; and extensive track work. The Red Line did not return to normal service until Oct. 7. Extensive track work during the Labor Day weekend closed the Pentagon City, Crystal City and Reagan National Airport stations.

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