For Metro's strapped budget, a wealth of ideas but not cash

Ray Pittman uses a fare machine at the Largo station before the next segment of his trip -- by skateboard.
Ray Pittman uses a fare machine at the Largo station before the next segment of his trip -- by skateboard. (Linda Davidson/the Washington Post)
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By Robert Thomson
Sunday, March 14, 2010

In "The Paradox of Choice," author Barry Schwartz makes the case that more can be less. Sometimes, he writes, we have too many options for our own good. Rather than being thrilled with the range of possibilities before us, we become anxious about sorting through them all and making the right choice.

Metro riders now find themselves neatly bound within those pages. Never have they been presented with so many choices directly affecting their travels as the transit authority's board tries to balance its budget.

What we wished for

In previous rounds of transit budgeting, the Metro board has sought comment on a narrowed-down set of fare increases or service cuts. Riders chafed at that. Bring us in on the ground floor, they told the board. Board members listened to them and have released for discussion just about every budget-balancing idea they have heard of.

The list of options already was pages long when board members told the staff to look again to make sure the document included every concept that was legal and technically feasible from any responsible source.

A review of what is now a 16-page document -- all the way up to Attachment F -- won't give riders many clues about how Metro will wind up balancing the budget this spring. But even a glance will tell you this: We're in serious trouble. The board is divided by jurisdictional interests, desperate for time, and uncertain how to maintain service and fares at levels riders will tolerate.

The board has not endorsed any of the ideas released for public comment. Even as they were voting for the wide-ranging public discussion, several board members said they would never support some of the proposals.

Board member Jim Graham, who also is a D.C. Council member, said the overall impact of the proposals would unfairly burden the District's transit riders. Several service improvements championed by Graham, such as the extension of the Yellow Line to Fort Totten and late Metrorail service on Friday and Saturday nights, are under review.

Graham once again urged the board to borrow money from the capital budget, the long-term budget for equipment purchases and maintenance, to balance the operating budget and avoid service cuts. That idea remains unpopular with other board members who describe that as the start of a "death spiral" that would sacrifice the system's future to preserve current service.

But how is an average rider supposed to make any sense out of the options listed in the menus and sub-menus before the six hearings start on March 22? Should riders search for the fare and service elements that affect them and argue against changes?

What you can do

Venting about the proposed closing of a station entrance or a bus fare increase might be good for the soul, but it won't give the board members much to work with. They assume that riders don't want services cut or fares increased.

The board members have very little time between the end of the hearings and when they must choose among the detailed proposals. They are required to balance the budget and will be looking for trends in public comment.

Unless you're an accountant, don't try to come up with an exact total in savings and revenue that would solve the budget problem. Because so many proposals were thrown in, they add up to more in service cuts and fare increases than would be necessary.

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