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D.C. Metro's budget shortfall estimated at $40 million

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; B01

Metro's projected budget shortfall for this fiscal year has shot up from $22 million to $40 million, officials said Thursday, prompting the transit agency to consider reducing rail and bus service.

"Metro is in what might be the worst financial crisis of our existence," General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told Metro's board of directors during a regular meeting.

According to a memo Catoe sent the board Tuesday, actions being reviewed include lengthening the waits between trains to up to 30 minutes; reducing peak rail service (which would create more crowded trains); closing some station entrances; and cutting service on some bus routes.

The deterioration in Metro's financial picture is attributable largely to the recession and the increase in unemployment, which means fewer riders and less revenue, officials said. Rail revenue is 6 percent less than expected and bus revenue is 10 percent less, for a total of $35 million less revenue than projected.

"There has been a decline in transit ridership nationally based on the economy," Catoe said.

At Thursday's meeting, Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal outlined several steps to make up the $40 million budget shortfall, including some that Catoe can begin taking immediately. Proposed rail service changes that will be addressed in a special session of the board Jan. 7.

Recommended savings include:

-- $12 million by shifting some parts purchases from the operating to the capital budget.

-- $10 million by canceling some preventative maintenance.

-- $2.2 million by eliminating about 125 positions (100 vacant operating positions would not be filled and 25 administrative jobs would involve layoffs).

An additional $6 million is available from insurance reimbursement for the June 22 crash on the Red Line that killed nine people, and $5.6 million could be drawn from Metro reserve funds.

About $4 million in savings would come from bus and rail service reductions, Kissal said.

Specific service cuts under consideration include increasing the time between trains from 12 to 15 minutes during the day Saturday, from 15 to 20 minutes during the day Sunday and from 20 to 30 minutes at night Saturday and Sunday.

Weekday wait times would go from 12 to 15 minutes at midday and from 20 to 30 minutes at night, according to the Catoe memo. Early morning service on weekdays would also be reduced, increasing the wait between trains from six to eight minutes.

In addition, peak service would be reduced by 7 percent by running only six-car trains on weekdays, "creating more crowded trains but still providing service for all riders," the memo said.

Ten Metro mezzanines would be closed weekends: Anacostia North, Stadium Armory, New York Avenue South, Friendship Heights South, Shaw-Howard University South, L'Enfant Plaza West, King Street North, Navy Yard East, U Street East and Silver Spring North.

Also, five station entrances would close at 8 p.m.: King Street North, Stadium-Armory North, McPherson Square West, Shaw-Howard U South and Friendship Heights South.

Bus service changes were not spelled out in as much detail in the Catoe memo, but they would include reducing the frequency of buses, eliminating segments of routes, and cutting some bus stops for a projected saving of $1 million.

The increased gap in this fiscal year's budget comes after Metro's announcement this month that it faces a projected $175 million shortfall for fiscal 2011, which begins July 1. Officials have discussed service cuts and fare increases to help close that gap.

Nevertheless, after stinging criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill over lapses in safety oversight and accountability at Metro, Catoe issued what he called a "declaration of war" on safety problems and vowed that "nothing, not even money, will hinder our efforts to make this system as safe as possible."

"If riders don't feel safe, we won't have the need for service," he said.

Despite the financial troubles, Metro officials announced upgrades for the SmarTrip program that by spring 2010 will allow discount passes to be added to the electronic fare cards and will create a Web site where customers can view transactions and balances and add value to their cards.

A program that will enable customers to add value or renew passes at fare gates, fare boxes or parking lots using transit benefits, credit cards or bank accounts will be rolled out in the summer of 2010, officials said.

An Internal Revenue Service requirement that Metro separate transit and parking benefits on smart cards under the SmartBenefits program has been delayed for a year until January 2011, according to an IRS ruling this week, Metro said.

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