Metro looks at cuts, other options to solve budget shortfall

Commuters crowd onto a Green Line train during the afternoon rush. Service might worsen as Metro tries to close its budget gap.
Commuters crowd onto a Green Line train during the afternoon rush. Service might worsen as Metro tries to close its budget gap. (Michael Robinson-chavez/the Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Every ride we take on Metro is subsidized by many people who never use the transit system and many more who will never see it. Those people are sending Metro riders a holiday gift that should amount to $300 million for the next year. It will take the form of a federal subsidy with matching funds from the local jurisdictions that support Metro.

But that's about the end of the good news for riders. The transit authority is looking at what combination of cuts and extra money would close a gap of $175.4 million looming in the fiscal year starting July 1. Shortfalls in this year's budget have created a more immediate problem. Here's a look at what riders face.

Immediate concerns

General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said Thursday that this year's operating budget of $1.4 billion will probably wind up $40 million out of balance. Although fares don't cover the cost of providing transit service, Metro misses those riders when they are not there. When planning this year's budget, the transit authority calculated that fare collections would increase. "We overestimated the ridership for this year," Catoe said.

In fact, ridership has declined, and the proportion of shorter rail trips has increased. The effect is particularly evident during the morning rush, despite the crowding many riders experience. Parking revenue has declined, too. The only part of the transit authority's service that is growing is MetroAccess, the service for senior citizens and disabled people, but it is also the most expensive to operate.

Fare increases are not possible now because the board would need to debate, hold public hearings and vote on the changes, a long process.

The largest potential cuts involve transferring $12 million from the operating budget -- where the immediate problem is -- to the capital budget and dipping into a $5.6 million reserve fund. The agency would also use $10 million in stimulus funds to pay for preventive maintenance, instead of using money from the operating budget. The cuts in bus and rail service would amount to no more than $4 million, a tenth of the savings sought. The transit authority also could close the customer information call center at 8:30 p.m. instead of 10:30 p.m. to save $300,000.

Signs of things to come

The review of service cut options could be a preview of more agonizing decisions needed to close the far larger budget gap expected for the coming fiscal year. Catoe and the board can choose from a menu of potential cuts, but a review of some options should get the attention of those who rely on transit services:

-- Eliminate eight-car trains at peak periods. This would reduce rush-hour service by 58 rail cars. The Orange Crush would become crushier.

-- Restructure peak service on the Red Line. This would result in longer waits and more crowded trains. The peak-period turn backs at Grosvenor would be eliminated. Some riders traveling beyond Grosvenor would cheer that, but it would reduce service to the busiest stations.

-- Increase the gaps between trains on weeknights and weekends. Rush-hour riders confronting crowded trains sometimes step back and wait a couple of minutes for the next one. That's less of an option for an off-peak traveler who knows that the next one is a half-hour away.

-- Reduce the frequency of bus service and eliminate some trips. There is an upside: It saves wear and tear on the vehicles and eliminates runs with lower ridership. But it increases wear and tear on passengers who can't easily adjust their schedules or don't want to stand for long rides.

-- Reduce the number of bus stops. This also has an upside because it speeds up trips and makes the schedule more reliable. But it works best for Metrobus riders when it is part of an overall service review, designed to accommodate a variety of passenger needs.

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