Metro's budget numbers include a $72 million gap

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011

Metro's top executive presented a proposed operating budget of $1.4 billion for fiscal 2012 to the agency's Board of Directors on Thursday, including a projected $72 million budget gap that Interim General Manager Richard Sarles asked local jurisdictions to fill.

The proposal does not contain service cuts or fare increases for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That is in contrast to the current budget, which included the largest fare increase in Metro's history: $108 million in fare increases to address a $189 million budget shortfall.

Metro "needs to continue current services given the fare increase this year," said Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal. "I feel much better about this budget; it's manageable."

Board of Directors Chairman Peter Benjamin of Maryland said it would be "difficult" for the jurisdictions that fund Metro operations in Maryland, Virginia and the District to come up with $72 million.

"You have put in front of us a series of unpalatable choices," Benjamin said.

Kissal outlined other options for closing the budget gap, including selling the right to name Metro stations for projected revenue of as much as $2 million and negotiating lump-sum advance payments for property it leases to others that could raise as much as $50 million on a one-time basis.

A major factor in cost increases in the 2012 budget was higher overtime expenses - estimated at $7.3 million - because of Metro's shortage of bus drivers.

"We are probably 12 months behind in getting to a reasonable vacancy rate for bus drivers and rail operators," Kissal said, noting that the problem is compounded because Metro's collective bargaining agreement requires that the agency recruit rail operators from the ranks of bus drivers.

The shortage resulted from a hiring freeze in 2008 and 2009 coupled with attrition, and is difficult to overcome because Metro's hiring standards mean that 1,000 people on average are vetted to produce a class of 30 bus driver candidates, Metro officials said. Metro instituted stricter hiring standards for applicants with criminal convictions in August 2009.

In addition, the cost of MetroAccess, a service for disabled riders, will increase by a projected $3.7 million, according to Metro data.

Metro also announced major track repairs and upgrades for 2011 as part of what Sarles called Metro's most aggressive work program since the system was built starting four decades ago.

The work plan will require closing portions of the rail system on several weekends in 2011. It will also require single-tracking, which generally will start at 9 p.m. on Fridays and continue through Sunday nights, or Monday nights on holiday weekends, according to Metro.

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