IF METRO STATION managers need instruction to realize they shouldn't chase customers with brooms, then we're all for instruction. It's nice to hear that Metro plans, beginning Oct. 1, to give its managers refresher courses in courtesy. But anyone who understands what is really behind the need for such courses should be disturbed about the future of public transit in the Washington area. Most station managers do their best to be helpful and polite most of the time; the problem is that they must deal with an increasingly frustrated ridership. Riders are frustrated because of problematic service. And service is likely to worsen in coming years because regional and federal politicians won't acknowledge that a first-class system requires public support: a dedicated source of funding.
It's true that some of Metro's problems are self-inflicted, and not just the Manager With a Broom. It's the Metro board that had the dim idea of reducing trains to two cars after 10 p.m. most nights; it's Metro administrators who converted parking lots to SmarTrip payment only, and then realized that they might not have enough SmarTrip cards to meet demand. But the fundamental problem facing Metro is that its tracks, trains, buses and escalators are aging, its ridership is growing -- and area governments won't pay for needed maintenance and upgrades. If customers are unhappy about their transit service now, just wait a few years.
Local officials long have understood that public transit can never be self-sufficient. Revenue from fares doesn't match expenses on any system; in Washington, riders already pay a higher proportion of expenses than elsewhere. Successful systems invariably rely on some form of stable public financing to complement the take from fares. Such contributions benefit not only public transit users but drivers whose roads are less congested as a result.
Local officials understand all this, as we said. But which ones have the courage to do anything about it? Regional officials periodically call for a predictable source of revenue, and Metro's general manager will show anyone he can his charts of an impending $1.5 billion, six-year deficit, not to mention a $42 million shortfall that the system is facing in its next operating budget, which begins next July.
Yesterday, Metro managers presented a funding plan to start raising the $1.5 billion by changing the way Metro pays for capital items; instead of waiting until it has all the money needed for a major purchase, Metro would proceed with purchases of rail cars, buses and other improvements as cash allows. Will local governments commit to this installment-plan approach next month? It may have merit, but it doesn't solve the basic problems of raising the necessary regional and federal funds.
Last month, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority renewed its call for regional leaders to come up with a dedicated source of money. The authority noted that "significant additional funding is essential to maintain the safety, security and quality of Metro." So what was the initial reaction? For the most part, leaders stared at their shoes, pretending they didn't hear the call or mumbling something about having already given at the office. Tony Bullock, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said the mayor wouldn't support dedicating any existing form of revenue because "we use every piece of revenue pie that we already have." Robert L. Flanagan, Maryland transportation secretary, said any solution would have to include Baltimore transit and could not come from higher sales, income or gas taxes. Because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. already has raised "user fees" on auto registration and other state services, what does that leave? Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, said Metro is but one of many transportation needs for which the state doesn't have money. At least Mr. Warner did campaign hard for a Northern Virginia transportation tax proposal that the voters rejected in 2002 -- which brings us right back to this latest call.
In explaining the courtesy training to Post reporter Lyndsey Layton, James Gallagher, Metro's deputy general manager for operations, said that "we really have to emphasize customer service, because we know we're going to have problems on the railroad." Courtesy is fine, but it can't substitute for having the trains run on time. The chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, Falls Church City Council member David F. Snyder, had it right: "Everyone is tired of seeing the problem defined by multi-colored brochures. We know what the problem is -- let's get on to actually solving it this time."