D.C. area Metro transit agency backing off service cuts

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

Metro's board of directors Thursday welcomed a revised budget-balancing plan that would scale back service cuts and rely instead on additional fare increases and borrowed capital funds to close a $189 million operating shortfall in the next fiscal year.

Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, offered the new plan largely in response to an outpouring of opinion against service cuts at recent public hearings.

"We received a great deal of input from customers," said Sarles, who took over the transit agency April 2. The revised measures are an effort to "balance the interests of all in the region fairly," he said.

The proposal would limit cuts in bus and rail service to $8 million, compared with $33.7 million in the original budget. Meanwhile, the increase in revenue from fares and other fees, such as parking, would grow from $89.2 million to $108.8 million.

Board members generally endorsed the new plan, whose emphasis on fare increases is in line with the majority of public comments. The plan also includes higher parking fees and special fares for historic and sporting events.

"I think there is a majority" of board members broadly backing the proposal, said board member Jim Graham of the District.

Some specific proposals, such as ending weekend late-night rail service at 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, instead of at 3 a.m., and cutting certain bus routes, drew harsh criticism from members whose jurisdictions would be most affected. Graham called the earlier weekend closing "anathema."

Chris Zimmerman, a member from Arlington County, rejected any service cuts, contending that an inevitable economic upturn or an increase in gas prices could easily boost Metro ridership. "Cutting back on our service is inane," he said. "All you need is the economy to uptick a little bit, and the system will be overwhelmed."

A more controversial change is the proposal to borrow $30 million from the capital budget for preventive maintenance. The proposal drew criticism from some board members already concerned about a projected $11 billion gap in Metro's capital needs for the next decade.

Metro officials stressed that the capital funds would be used as a last resort and would be repaid.

Board members also voiced concern that $150 million in federal funding for Metro -- to be matched by $50 million each from the District, Virginia and Maryland -- would not be provided until after Metro's new budget year begins July 1 and would not be provided in a lump sum. The federal funding is supposed to be paid in increments linked to Metro's capital spending.

Federal board member Mortimer Downey said that regardless of the timing, all of the $150 million in federal funds would be provided eventually because the commitment would not expire.

Nevertheless, Zimmerman, Graham and other board members said a delay would harm an already delinquent maintenance effort at Metro, and they warned that the jurisdictions might end up diverting some matching funds to other uses.

"We are so far behind" in capital repairs, Zimmerman said. "We needed the money last year, not this year."

Another change that drew some objections was a reduction from $40 million to $26 million in the request for additional subsidies from the jurisdictions.

As part of a stepped-up safety effort, the board also moved to require Metro to develop a mechanism for tracking all safety recommendations made by oversight agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Transit Administration and the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which oversees safety at Metro.

The resolution requires that Metro's staff provide quarterly reports to the board and Metro's inspector general on the status of actions to correct problems, including any significant delays.

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