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Metro takes a look at budget ideas

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; B05

Metro wrapped up its public hearings Thursday on how to close the $189 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1, with a report on the findings to go to the board of directors this month.

Board approval is required for any significant fare increases or service cuts, and the board will weigh the public feedback as well as the results of an online survey that Metro is conducting to gather more opinion on the many possible options for filing the budget gap.

The survey, at http://www.wmata.com/survey.cfm, allows members of the public to construct their own budget by making choices on whether to raise fares and limit service, as well as other options such as curtailing MetroAccess, a special transit service for the disabled and elderly, or shifting funds from the capital budget to the $1.4 billion operating budget.

The board has not endorsed any of the options released for public comment. Indeed, although the board voted to allow the broad public discussion after complaints that the last round of hearings earlier this year had an overly restrictive agenda, board members made clear that they opposed some of the proposals.

Given the magnitude of this year's budget shortfall, several board members view as virtually inevitable some fare increase, which would follow a surcharge of 10 cents per bus or rail trip that took effect Feb. 28. "The fares are going to go up," said Metro board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington County.

Many members of the public also said they would prefer a fare increase over reductions in service, and transit advocacy organizations are also pushing for measures that keep existing service intact while raising fares and increasing contributions from local governments to the transit agency. However, other activists and riders have voiced concern that fare increases would make public transportation prohibitively expensive for those least able to pay.

Metro's budget struggles are paralleled by transit agencies nationwide as a result of the recession and resulting decline in state and local revenue, according to a survey released Thursday by the American Public Transportation Association . Metro has blamed its shortfall on a decrease in ridership because of the downturn.

Seven out of 10 of the transit agencies surveyed, or 69 percent, projected budget shortfalls in the coming fiscal year, and a similar percentage of them had eliminated positions or considered doing so.

The survey found that since January 2009, 84 percent of the systems have cut service or raised fares or are considering doing so, and 59 percent have already taken such actions.

The survey included 151 transit system members of the association. They represent 80 percent of the country's public transit users and 19 of the top 25 agencies in annual ridership, according to the association.

The budget crisis for public transit agencies is "by far the worst I have ever seen," said William Millar, the association president, who has worked in the field for nearly four decades.

"Virtually every large system is reporting shortfalls," he said, and one in two are increasing fares.

"If you couple that with the number of systems that are shrinking and eliminating systems, and the thousands of layoffs . . . this is an extraordinary crisis that is facing the industry," he said.

Millar urged Congress to pass a new jobs bill that could provide as much as $690 million in operating aid for public transit.

An umbrella group of transit advocates has also called for local jurisdictions that fund Metro operations to increase their contributions by $74 million, in part to cover the $34 million worth of service cuts proposed in the Metro budget.

Members of the public who want to send written comments on the proposed budget measures to Metro can mail them to the Office of the Secretary, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 600 Fifth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 or e-mail them to http://public-hearing-testimony@wmata.com. Comments are due by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

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