By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; B01
Metro customers will begin paying 10 cents more for trips throughout the system beginning March 1.
The transit agency's board of directors approved the increase during a meeting Thursday to help cover a $40 million shortfall in the current operating budget.
The increase on Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess fares, which is scheduled to expire in June, is expected to generate about $10 million. The rest of the shortage will be covered by staff cuts, stimulus money, insurance, a reserve fund and spending less on contractors.
The increase, which also applies to weekly bus and subway passes, is likely to become permanent as the financially strapped agency wrestles with historic budget deficits.
On Thursday, Metro released a budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that projects a $189 million gap in a $1.4 billion operating budget.
Metro is proposing to make up about $90 million of the 2011 budget shortfall with another fare increase, said Carol Kissal, Metro's chief financial officer, and will pursue service cuts and staff reductions. The new fare increases would cap the cost of any trip at $5, she said. The cap is currently $4.50 but will be $4.60 with the 10-cent increase.
The board of directors must decide which options for next year it will put before the public as part of the budget hearing process.
Metro said comments from the public submitted in writing and during a hearing Wednesday influenced the board's decision to raise fares instead of cutting services for the current year. Metro had submitted four options for public comment that included a mix of service cuts, fare increases and transferring money from the capital budget, which pays for long-term maintenance and equipment purchases.
"We heard from our customers that they would rather increase fares than reduce service," said Peter Benjamin, who was elected Metro board chairman Thursday. "Not a single member of this board wants to increase fares or decrease service, but we need to take this temporary action to balance the budget this year."
The 10-cent increase had been part of an option that would have transferred money from the capital budget.
But board members said that drawing on capital funds wasn't prudent because it would lead to further degradation in the 34-year-old Metro system. Over the next 10 years, Metro will need an estimated $11 billion in capital upgrades, agency officials said.
"We are peering into the death spiral" by shifting funds from the capital budget into operations, warned board member Christopher Zimmerman of Arlington County.
Mortimer Downey, a federal board member appointed Thursday, also rejected that idea, calling it a "very, very slippery slope."
After blocking the use of capital funds, the board required instead that Metro find additional internal cuts to provide the final $6 million to fill the gap in the current operating budget of $1.3 billion.
Kissal said those cuts will come primarily from paring contracted services in areas such as information technology, regional planning and human resources. "It will be invisible to customers," she said.
Kissal said layoffs were not an option for the current budget problem because they would not happen this year. "We need quick savings," she said.
Advocacy groups welcomed the board's decision not to reduce service. Proposed service cuts would have lengthened time between trains to as long as a half an hour and caused greater crowding on trains and buses, risking turning riders away. Metro has said ridership is already in decline because of the recession.
"We are relieved that the Metro board didn't cut service," Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said in a statement Thursday. "This would have left tens of thousands of riders stranded and sent many commuters back to face traffic jams in their cars."
Downey suggested that a jobs bill in Congress could bring in more federal money for transit systems, "recognizing that systems across the country are in this pain," he said.
Transit and rider advocacy groups have also urged greater funding for the system to prevent future fare increases or service cuts.
"Next year's daunting deficit calls for the state, federal and local governments to step up and commit the funds needed to ensure a sound transit system," Cort said.