$189 million gap has Metro eyeing higher rail, bus fares

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Metro proposed almost $90 million worth of rail and bus fare increases Thursday to help close a $189 million gap in the $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.

The fare hikes would include a 25-cent increase in the boarding charge at peak rail travel times and would raise the maximum peak-period fare from $4.50 to $5.00.

The proposal, announced at a Metro Board meeting, also would add 50 cents to the $1.25 boarding charge for buses and increase the price of a bus pass from $11 to $15.

Public hearings will be held on these and other measures to resolve the 2011 budget shortfall, including $34 million in rail and bus service reductions. Metro also plans to save $16 million in staffing and other departmental cuts.

Metro plans to gain an additional $40 million in government subsidies, but officials acknowledged that the availability of those funds remains uncertain, meaning that additional service cuts or borrowing from the capital budget could be necessary.

"We can't have a budget coming from the general manager that is built on sand," board member Jim Graham of the District said at the meeting.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said Metro staff had determined how to make up that $40 million if it doesn't materialize. "The choices will be to make additional reductions in services. . . . or find some other way of bringing revenue in, which we haven't been able to figure out yet," he said.

The proposed fare increases follow Metro's decision to apply a 10-cent surcharge for bus and rail trips starting Feb. 28 to help close this year's operating budget gap of about $40 million. On Thursday, the board decided to limit the surcharge to 5 cents for rail and bus trips for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Metro's financial difficulties were exacerbated by the snowstorms this month, which cost Metro an estimated $18 million, including $8 million for snow removal and $9.7 million in revenue lost because of limited service and extremely low ridership, the agency said in a statement. Snow has also obstructed parking spaces in lots and garages across the system, causing further losses, the statement said.

In addition to fuel and salt, snow-removal costs include overtime for employees and fees for contractors who removed snow.

"Metro is currently working with the commonwealth of Virginia, District of Columbia and the state of Maryland to submit costs to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for potential reimbursement associated with the snowstorms," said Carol Kissal, Metro's chief financial officer. "We are aggressively pursuing recovery of the $8 million in snow removal costs and the $9.7 million in lost revenue" through federal disaster aid, she said.

Metro estimates that heavy snow in December 2009 cost it $2.7 million in revenue.

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