Metro staff starts working on next year's budget

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 8:19 PM

Metro's staff, now developing the transit authority's budget for next year, is hoping to do it without increasing fares or cutting bus and rail service, but that will be difficult. Among other financial challenges, Metro anticipates a 10 percent growth in ridership on the costly MetroAccess service for people with disabilities.

Another concern for the budget staff will be the cost of safety improvements stemming from the investigation into the 2009 Red Line crash and the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The staff will work on reducing $25 million worth of internal costs at the transit authority. Over the past three years, Metro has implemented $165 million in budget reductions, the staff says.

But with current financial assumptions, and without an increase in the subsidies provided by the local jurisdictions, the staff projects a budget gap of $89 million.

The Metro board won't decide on an actual budget until spring. Board members Peter Benjamin of Maryland and Jim Graham of the District, speaking Thursday in a finance committee meeting, expressed concern about adopting specific budget guidelines that would tie the board's hands. They said they are worried about whether the jurisdictions they represent would be able to increase subsidies to a level that would balance the next budget.

The Metro budget year starts each July, so it's difficult to project trends in revenue and spending, which will be important in creating the next budget.

Overall ridership - as opposed to revenue - is 2 percent below the last fiscal year's levels and 4 percent below what was anticipated in the current budget. Rail ridership is the same level as a year ago, according to a report prepared for the Metro board. Year-to-date average weekday bus ridership is 6 percent below the last fiscal year's level and 7 percent below current budget expectations.

While there is no single reason for the decrease in ridership, contributing factors might include the economic climate, on-time performance, fare increases and the reduction of the transfer period from three to two hours, according to the report.

Jim Hamre, a bus expert with Metro, said Thursday that bad weather also might have contributed to a decline in bus ridership. He also noted that bus ridership surged in the months after the Red Line crash, which might affect comparisons between the budget years.

Graham, also asked the staff for a review of the impact that the D.C. Circulator bus is having on Metrobus. The Circulator buses charge $1, undercutting the Metrobus fare of $1.50 with SmarTrip.

Last winter, Metro imposed an emergency fare surcharge to cover unanticipated costs. That was followed by the permanent fare increases that took effect in summer.

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