Metro board expected to approve cutbacks in service

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Metro's board of directors is expected to authorize rail and bus service cutbacks Thursday that would increase crowding and wait times between trains and buses. The move is intended to help staunch a $40 million shortfall in this year's $1.37 billion operating budget.

The planned decreases in rail and bus service would start at the end of March, Metro officials said. Officials said the initial service reductions would probably be a precursor to bigger cuts as well as fare increases, as the transit system grapples with a projected $175 million deficit in the $1.4 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

Last month, Metro announced that its projected budget gap this fiscal year would be almost double the previous estimate, as ridership continued to shrink because of the recession and rising unemployment. Metrorail ridership is 6 percent lower than projected for the budget year, and bus ridership is about 9 percent lower, leading to expected revenue decreases of $24 million and $10 million, respectively. Riders are also making shorter trips, further eroding revenue, officials said.

The Washington area transit woes are mirrored to a degree in other large cities, as nationwide ridership on transit systems fell almost 4 percent for the first nine months of last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

"Nearly 60 percent of riders take public transportation to commute to and from work, so it is to be expected that public transit ridership would be lower when unemployment is high," said an e-mail statement from APTA President William Millar. He said that the trend to reduce service would probably worsen the problem. "Raising fares and cutting service drives people away from using public transit and is counterproductive," he said.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has proposed closing the $40 million gap for the current year by several means, including shifting $12 million in parts requirements to the capital budget and using stimulus funds rather than operating funds for $10 million worth of preventive maintenance. The proposed rail and bus service reductions would save about $4 million, according to Metro projections.

If approved, the main rail service changes would include lengthening the time between trains on weekends, late in the evening and at midday between three and 10 minutes, for savings totaling almost $2 million.

In addition, the waiting time would increase by two minutes for trains between 6 and 6:30 a.m. weekdays, saving about $114,000.

Metro would also eliminate the use of eight-car trains during peak hours to save an estimated $672,000 on maintenance and electricity costs.

Mezzanines at 10 stations would be closed on weekends and would close at 8 p.m. at five stations on weekdays -- meaning that customers would have to walk an additional block or two to an entrance that remains open -- for a savings of more than $200,000.

The Metro budget forecast assumes that there would be no increase in riders in the current fiscal year compared with 2009. As a result, it projects that eliminating the eight-car trains would lead to about six more passengers per car and 36 per train during peak hours.

Metro bus service would also be scaled back, for a total savings of more than $1 million, mainly by increasing the time between buses and eliminating bus stops or segments that have few riders. The changes would affect an estimated 100,000 riders in the District, 36,000 in Virginia and 16,000 in Maryland, and would lead to a reduction of 15 buses during peak hours.

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