By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; B04
Leading Washington area transit advocates and residents strongly opposed Metro service cuts and instead backed 10-cent fare increases to plug a $40 million budget gap this year as hundreds of people attended a public hearing on budget options at Metro headquarters Wednesday.
"All Metro users will need to pay substantially higher fares and fees to keep the Metrorail and Metrobus systems functioning at a high level of safety, dependability and convenience," said Kevin Moore, a director of MetroRiders.org, a volunteer group representing Washington metropolitan transit riders.
The public comment came the night before a Metro Board meeting Thursday that is scheduled to decide on measures to fill the budget gap for this fiscal year. Any fare increase or service cut would take effect from March 1 through June 30, according to Metro officials.
Outgoing Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told the hearing that the $40 million shortfall in Metro's $1.4 billion budget this fiscal year was primarily a result of "a reduction in ridership due to the recession." He said metropolitan transit systems across the country are having similar difficulties and ticked off a list of major service cuts and fare increases in cities including Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
Metro anticipates an even larger budget shortfall, $175 million to $190 million, next year.
Catoe said he has approved steps to cover about $24 million of the gap for the remainder of fiscal 2010, leaving about $16 million "that we still have to find." Metro issued a set of four options for making the additional cuts, including one reducing service, another that would take the full $16 million from capital funds, and two that involve a combination of a fare increase and borrowing from capital funds.
MetroRiders.org joined other major groups, including Transit First, a coalition of transit riders, environmentalists, labor and community groups, and the nonprofit regional planning organization Coalition for Smarter Growth, in opposing the first of four options open for discussion at the hearing. That option would have used cuts to Metrorail and Metrobus service to save $4 million by lengthening the time between trains to up to 30 minutes on weekday evenings and weekends, running only six-car trains during rush hour, and cutting bus service -- all of which would cause greater crowding on trains and buses.
The vast majority of people speaking at the hearing opposed service cuts, saying it would harm job-seekers and businesses, cause safety hazards because of overcrowding and other problems, and prove counterproductive by driving riders away from the system.
Cheryl Adams, a pedestrian safety advocate, said cuts in bus service would affect highly used routes. "It would be a pedestrian and passenger safety hazard" to cause greater crowding on the buses during peak travel hours, she said.
Others said that service cuts would lead more people to drive, worsening traffic and further shrinking Metro revenue.
"Decreasing the frequency of trains to every 20 to 30 minutes would make the quality of service bad to intolerable," said Brian Edwards of Alexandria, who said he does not own a car. "I would just choose to stay home," he said, adding that he has decided to stop going to Nationals games because the long wait for trains "just wasn't worth the hassle."
Dan Miller, who lives in Southwest Washington, said that he has also never owned a car but that if rail service is cut to every 30 minutes in the evenings, "you are really reaching the point where people are considering whether it is possible to live here without having a car."
Instead, residents and advocacy groups called on Metro leaders to support an option that would raise fares by 10 cents and passes by 10 percent, generating $9.6 million, while taking $6.4 million from the capital budget to pay for parts. They rejected a fare-increase proposal that called for boosting fares 5 cents to generate $4.8 million, while taking $11.2 million from the capital budget.