Metro general manager Richard Page proposed yesterday a 16 percent budget increase for next year that would make Metro more dependent than ever on subsidies from area taxpayers.
Even with another fare increase, the local governments' share of the record $365 million operating budget would rise 35 percent to $206 million, due mainly to inflation, expenses for 7.5 miles of new Blue and Yellow line track, debt service and reductions in federal operating aid.
Page said the increases would enable Metro to expand the rail system and improve bus service. The draft budget comes as Metro faces the spiral of rising fares and eroding ridership that has helped to bankrupt transit systems in other cities. In the fiscal year ending June 30, Metro recorded its first-ever annual loss of riders.
The budget document shows ridership growing slightly in fiscal 1983, beginning July 1, as the popular rail system is expanded to 46 miles and new programs begin to make buses cleaner and more reliable and to publicize fare and service information. Productivity also would improve, the budget promises.
Page acknowledged that local governments would find their subsidy bills high but said there were unavoidable reasons for it. Cost-of-living clauses continue to raise transit wages -- personnel costs account for about three-quarters of the total budget -- and 384 new jobs would be created for the new rail service and other programs.
In addition, larger payments on revenue bonds that financed the first rail construction in the early '70s come due next year and the local governments must cover an expected $8 million, or one-third, decrease in federal operating aid. Page presented his budget yesterday morning at the Airlie retreat facility near Warrenton, where the board and area transit officials were gathered for Metro's annual policy conference.
Proposals to raise spending had been expected, and Metro board members had no immediate outcry. Board Chairman Joseph Alexander said he expected little opposition when the board considers the document because most of the spending increases grow out of salary rises mandated by contract and costs of the new rail service.
Transit officials agree, nonetheless, that opposition is mounting in area governments to the snowballing subsidies that they are paying out of their local treasuries. Much criticism centers on allegations that Metro pays excessive wages. The transit system responds that the cost-of-living clauses are required by federal law.
During Page's presentation yesterday such concern was underlined as Jack Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board, stood up to tell Page that his board was going to watch Metro's use of money very closely.
Assuming a fare increase, Page's budget would have fares and other revenues covering about 46 percent of Metro's operating costs, excluding debt service. That represents a further reduction in the system's ability to pay for itself. This year the figure will be an estimated 48 percent; last fiscal year it was 51 percent.
Board chairman Alexander has said that the current fare-subsidy ratios are about right but that an areawide tax devoted to transit must be enacted to fund the subsidies.
The proposed budget provides for the opening of Yellow Line track between Gallery Place and the Pentagon and for the Blue Line to be extended from National Airport to Huntington, bringing the first rail service to Alexandria.
The bus fleet, meanwhile, would be cut back from 1,736 vehicles to 1,626, as service parallel to the new track was curtailed. A new bus garage at Nicholson Lane off Rockville Pike would open.
Specific programs would be implemented to reduce the frequency of mid-trip breakdowns and to clean the buses more often. New marketing efforts designed to reduce confusion over fares and schedules would go into effect.
Answering allegations of poor management at Metro, Page's budget includes a list of steps to tighten control over costs and personnel, hold down absenteeism and make full use of part-time bus operators. No new administrative jobs would be created.
The budget also gives recommendations for rewriting a rail construction program approved by the board recently. The board had assumed that $315 million in federal capital funds would be available in the current fiscal year but now believes it will be only $290 million or less.
The staff proposes delaying the start of tunneling around the inner city Green Line's U Street station, scheduled to start this year under the original plans. Real estate purchases for the Yellow Line spur to Franconia-Springfield and the Green Line to Greenbelt also would be put off.