In April, an average of nearly three-quarters of a million people used Metro's bus or rail service every weekday. Those riders expect service to be reliable, clean, safe and affordable. And Metro scores well in most categories. It has an enviable record for safe operation. Its stations are well maintained and clean. In the past year, Metro has made great strides in improving the reliability of its service, and it is committed to continued improvement in this area.
What, then, of affordability? Has Metro met its obligation to provide affordable public transit? Many think not. Those who believe that Metro has not met this obligation point to local government subsidies and fares that have increased at a rate faster than inflation. Affordability means keeping fares down so the rider can afford to pay.
The alternative to juggling revenues and fares is obvious, though not easy: bring down the overall cost of operating the system; get a good grip on Metro's budget. A start was made this year. Metro's board of directors reduced the budget by more than $21 million by going through the general manager's proposed budget line by line.
But even this budget-combing does not point up all the financial questions. Metro should examine some of its policies that lead to a budget line-item expense in the first place.
Let me offer an example: in its next budget, Metro will spend $1.25 million to maintain the landscape around its station entrances. Clearly this is a job that should be done. The question is whether we are doing it in the most cost-efficient manner. Currently, the policy is to hire full-time Metro employees for the bulk of this work. Why not contract it out entirely to a private company? Why not contract with the local jurisdictions, which have significant numbers of people doing the same work? It may prove less costly to have some organization other than Metro. The same might be true of other functions, such as parking lot management, general maintenance and even some police functions.
This year the Metro board established a cost containment committee to explore a wide range of issues. I hope this committee will produce policy recommendations that can be considered in the context of next year's budget; and I have suggested that the committee hold public meetings to hear invited witnesses not only from Metro's staff and from the local jurisdictions, but also from other transit systems and knowledgeable organizations. Besides the possible contracting-out of some functions, there are other subjects for committee inquiry:
Maintenance costs: Metro has high maintenance costs compared with other transit systems. Are there ways to bring down these costs without jeopardizing the reliability of service?
Absenteeism: What can be done to reduce absenteeism among Metro employees?
Underused Buses: Should Metro eliminate bus service when the number of riders on a particular route falls below a certain level? Are there ways to offer alternative service at less cost--van pools, shared taxis and the like?
It is also important that Metro anticipate future transportation needs and be ready to address them in affordable fashion. Already, there are changing needs for transit service within and between the suburban jurisdictions. In the last few years, three local governments either have instituted local bus service or are planning for it. Continued population growth in the suburbs, particularly outside the Beltway, along with the development and expansion of employment centers in those areas and the continued expansion of the Metrorail system, will provide further impetus for expanding local bus service.
Such fundamental changes in the nature of bus service are bound to have a tremendous impact on Metro's operating expenses. Consequently, the Metro board needs to make sure that local and Metro services are complementary as well as cost- effective.
My own view is that locally operated bus service should be encouraged. Metro will remain the provider of regional, high-volume commuter service, but a local jurisdiction is quite capable of providing neighborhood service more tailored to local needs and, perhaps, at lower cost.
Cost containment is not a new topic, of course, nor are there easy solutions. The committee may well conclude that Metro's management is doing all it can reasonably do to hold down costs. So be it. Or, certain policy changes may well be in order. In either event, Metro's public--rider and taxpayer alike--deserves assurance that every effort is being made to make transit affordable as well as reliable, clean and safe.