A committee of Metro directors gave initial approval yesterday to a proposed $1 billion operating budget that calls for higher subsidies from local governments but no fare increase.
The budget, which will go back to the board for final approval next week, would take effect July 1 and mark the first time in Metro's 29-year history that operating costs exceed $1 billion. It represents an 8 percent increase over the current $973.6 million operating budget.
The new spending plan, which the committee passed 7 to 2, includes the cost of adding 25 buses and 62 rail cars to alleviate overcrowding, 24 positions to improve the inspection and maintenance program, 17 workers to help direct crowds at busy rail stations, 11 janitors, 21 customer service agents and 300 bombproof trash cans for the rail system. The agency's payroll will expand to 10,451 jobs.
Metro's operating costs are paid by passenger fares, money from advertising and other revenue, and subsidies from the jurisdictions served by the transit system. In the proposed budget, local governments are being asked to pay $434.4 million, an 8 percent increase over the current level.
Most Metro directors said they want to increase government subsidies rather than fares. Metro raised fares twice in the past two years, and Metro riders shoulder a higher share of the operating costs than riders of any other subway system in the country except New York's. In April, the most recent month for which figures were available, Metro passengers paid 66.7 percent of operating costs. The national average is about 30 percent.
Robert J. Smith, who represents Maryland on the board, said the subsidy increase was steep and cannot be repeated. "To sustain subsidy increases of this size is not only unlikely, it's impossible," he said. Smith and the other Maryland representative on the board, Charles Deegan, voted against the proposed budget, saying they will not support it without certain controls. They said they want a guarantee that excess revenue collected by Metro is returned to Maryland and the other local governments. Record-breaking ridership in April has produced an estimated $13 million surplus in the current budget, which Metro plans to refund to jurisdictions.
Maryland officials said they also want Metro to undertake better budgeting practices, become more accountable, tie budgets to performance and implement recommendations from a 2003 consultant's study that said Metro could save $13 million if it planned and scheduled maintenance more efficiently.
The directors also gave tentative approval to a $538 million capital budget for the next fiscal year, which will pay for the purchase of additional rail cars and buses, rehabilitation and replacement of ventilation and air-conditioning systems and the design of a new bus maintenance facility, among other things.
Smith said he was concerned about oversight of the capital projects because Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White recently placed the auditors responsible for overseeing the capital money under the supervision of the department that will spend it.
"So we've got the fox guarding the henhouse," Smith said, adding that the auditors should report to the chief financial officer.
White said he intends to reassign the auditors to the chief financial officer by fall.
Smith's concerns come after a series of articles this week in The Washington Post detailing how Metro mismanaged nearly $1 billion in recent rail car and escalator projects and spends millions on projects not directly related to its core transportation mission. The newspaper's investigation also found that the agency ignored safety warnings and failed to effectively manage its program to transport the disabled.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said he is asking the Government Accountability Office to investigate the way Metro managed its rail car and escalator contracts and is planning hearings in July on management of the public transit system. And D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) has scheduled a June 22 public roundtable to discuss Metro management.