Metro on a slippery slope

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

FIRST THE good news about Metro. The interim general manager, John Sarles, has proposed scrapping most of the service reductions that his predecessor, John B. Catoe Jr., was relying on to help close a gap in next year's budget for the transit agency. In doing so, Mr. Sarles heeded the testimony of dozens of passengers and others who insisted they'd rather suffer higher fees and fares than face longer waits, shorter trains, shorter operating hours and fewer bus routes.

The bad news is that even as Metro scrambles to maintain service, storm clouds continue to gather over its long-term financial and operational health. For one thing, the $1.46 billion budget that Mr. Sarles has proposed for the fiscal year starting in July would meet current maintenance needs partly by raiding $30 million from the pot of money that's supposed to pay for upgraded trains, buses, equipment and facilities. Granted, that's just 5 percent of annual capital spending. But for a transit agency whose infrastructure is as aging and accident-prone as Metro's, it's a foolish move and creates a budgetary hole that will be difficult to fill in the future.

Mr. Sarles was apparently led to this budgetary gimmickry mainly by foot-dragging by one of Metro's funding partners, the state of Maryland. Virginia and the District have indicated that they're prepared to find additional funds so that Metro needn't raid its capital budget. But Annapolis insists it's already ponying up $14 million more next year (bringing its subsidy for Metro to $230 million) and that it will go no higher. The trouble is, much of that $14 million is for services rendered -- namely, more residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties using MetroAccess, the agency's service for passengers with disabilities. It's troubling that Maryland won't dig slightly deeper to safeguard Metro's future. The overall trend is that Metro is relying more heavily on passenger fares as its three jurisdictional partners become increasingly tight-fisted.

It's equally disturbing that Maryland appears to be edging away from its promise to meet Metro's long-term infrastructure needs, which are estimated at $11 billion over the next decade. Already, even with a commitment from the feds to contribute $1.5 billion of that sum, Metro looked hard-pressed to raise even $8 billion of the $11 billion. Earlier this month, Maryland said it would defer for two years a $28 million payment that had been due in 2010.

Officials in Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration say Metro is not spending money on infrastructure fast enough to require that Annapolis cut checks right now. But Metro officials, mindful of tighter local and federal funding for transit, have already taken an ax to long-term infrastructure spending, including replacements for antiquated trains and buses. In its latest projections, Metro slashed its capital budget for the next six years by almost 10 percent, to about $4.6 billion, making it increasingly unlikely that it will reach the 10-year, $11 billion target for modernizing the system. Metro, sorry to say, is on a slippery slope, and Maryland is pushing it downhill.

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