The Metro board's ability to effectively operate the regional bus and subway system has been stricken with indecision at a time when critical financial problems must be resolved.
Board members, once free to act independently, must now get instructions from the political jurisdictions they represent before they take major votes. That situation has sprung from rising transit subsidies, rising property taxes, regional distrust of Metro management and uncertainty over the Carter administration's commitment to mass transit, interviews with regional officials indicate.
On July 1, if Metro board members are allowed to decide such basics as how much to charge for a ride, subway trains will start running from Bobert F. Kennedy Stadium through Capitol Hill and downtown Washington, under Foggy Bottom, into Rosslyn, past the Pentagon and on to National Airport.
That new line has the potential to revolutionize the travel habits of those who today take buses or cars across Key Bridge or the 14th Street Bridge to get to work.
About the same time, bus routes that feed downtown Washington from the south and east will be dramatically revised or curtailed, and a new computerized fare-collecting system will be in operation in subway stations.
Metro general manager Theodore Lutz has told board members for weeks that he must have a decision on fares by May 19 - next Thursday - if he is to program those fare-taking computers by July 1.
Furthermore, reams of instructional material for the public on how to use machines and how to transfer from bus to rail and back again are being held at the printers because there is no fare table. Some of the revised bus schedules have already been printed without a fare table.
Yesterday the board deferred until May 19 - the last possible moment - final approval of a fare schedule and a formula for allocating the operating deficit on the subway among the region's jurisdictions.
The board has given approval in principle to formulas solving both problems, but will not adopt them finally until it knows there is support from each of the area jurisdictions. Virginia and Montgomery County were ready to vote yesterday; Prince George's County was not, and the District seemed happy to have a week's delay.
"The board has to make certain it doesn't enrage any local government other than Fairfax City," said members Joseph Wholey, also of the Arlington County Board. (Fairfax City has said it will not pay a share of Metro operating deficits).
Wholey suggested that some way had to be found to set financial limits within which the board could make decisions. "It seems to me crazy to try and run this complicated system here this way," he said. "This isn't any way to run a railroad."
It wasn't always that way. In the good old days, when Metro was just building the subway, there was plenty of money - federal and local - and the board went its own way without intense scrutiny from the various boards and councils that govern the region's political jurisdictions.
But with the takeover of the area's four failing privately owned bus systems in 1972, Metro got into daily operations, and discovered what every transit system in America already knew - that fares would not be adequate to meet operating expenses.
The deficits began to climb, and local jurisdictions had to meet them. The primary source of revenue for local jurisdictions is the real estate property tax, and it has been climbing throughout the region to levels that are becoming politically unacceptable.
"Don't talk to me about regional responsibility," one locally elected official said in an interview. "Every vote I got came from my jurisdiction, not the region, and my jurisdiction wants lower property taxes."
To a greater or lesser degree, that view was held by every politician interviewed across the Washington area. Somehow, someway, Metro's operating deficit must be removed from the local property tax, they said. The bus deficit this year is $57 million; it is projected to be $55 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1 because of reduced bus service that will result from the expansion of the subway.
The subway deficit has been handled in this first year of operation as a capital expenditure and thus has not come out of operating funds. But beginning July 1, that changes. The first-year rail deficit is estimated at $21 million.
That means that the regional public transit deficit just for operations in the next fiscal year will total $76 million. It comes right out of the property tax.
The increasing deficits focused increasing local attention on Metro's management. The first general manager, Jackson Graham, was widely regarded with hostility by local politicians, who felt he was not responsive to their growing financial problems.
Graham's replacement, Lutz, has done much to repair rapport in day-to-day relations because of emphasis he has put on operating the bus system and keeping costs in check. But because of the need for local money to run the system, Lutz will never have the free hand that Graham did.
There is one other major problem. More than $1 billion in construction money for Metro has come from revenue bonds - bonds that were sold to investors with the expectation that the fares collected on the subway would pay the interest and, ultimately, the principal.
Everybody now knows that will not happen.The federal government guaranteed the bonds. The first big interest payment ($12 million) is due July 1. If it is not met, the bonds are in default. Who is going to pay?
The local jurisdictions are unanimous in their belief that they should not be responsible for the full amount. Most local jurisdictions would appear to be willing to accept a 20 per cent liability on the interest - if the federal government picked up the rest. That split - 80-20 federal - is the standard formula for federal aid to mass transit projects.
Various negotiations are underway to determine what the federal intention is regarding the Metro bonds. But some jurisdictions, notably Alexandria, have said specifically that until the federal share is firmly in line, there will be no local contribution to meet the interest payments. Prince George's County has said it will not pay, and budgeted no money for bond interest.
Adding to the concern of local officials is the lack of information on where the Carter administration is going in mass transit. The U.S. Department of Transportation was virtually shut out in development of the Carter energy policy, and that policy itself did not even mention mass transit. The Metro board yesterday sent a letter to Carter asking for a meeting to discuss federal intentions.
"Maybe we can get their attention with this revenue bond matter," one official said. "If Metro goes bankrupt, it will make the Penn Central look tiny."