Metro will have to raise bus and subway fares in January, cut service, or ask local government for more money.
A Metro board committee, faced with a budget shortage this year of between $9 million and $13 million, reached that conclusion yesterday when it called for public hearings to consider a 5-cent, across-the-board increase in fares, the elimination of charges for transfers and substantial cuts in weekend and nighttime service, effective Jan. 1.
The committee's action is almost certain to be approved by the full Metro board next week. Although it is not possible to predict whether a combination of service cuts and fare increases will result after hearings in October, it is certain that something unpleasant lies ahead for Metro riders or area taxpayers. The alternative to cuts or higher fares is for financially pressed local governments to increase their subsidies to the system.
If a fare increase is adopted, it would be the first time Metro has taken such an action in the middle of a fiscal year, and it would come only six months after a record fare increase for transit riders went into effect. Metro General Manager Richard S. Page said that he opposes a mid-year fare increase but that approach might be simpler than a complicated series of service cuts, fare adjustments and transfer fees that the committee discussed yesterday.
Page also said in an interview that he would have "a much better picture of the budget situation" in November, after labor contract issues are settled. oThe problem for the board, however, is that it takes about four months for Metro to hold required hearings and implement major service and fare changes. The board therefore has to start the process now.
After Metro budget director Eckhard (Bennie) Bennewitz outlined the savings of various options to the committee yesterday, member Joseph Alexander asked, "I wonder if Bennie has figured out the cost of the rail it's going to be necessary to ride us out on?" The laughter was forced.
The committee decided to propose for public hearing consideration four revenue-raising and four service-cutting measures.
The four revenue measures:
A 5-cent across-the-board fare increase for both bus and subway, that would raise an estimated $5 million to $6 million.
The elimination of all transfer credit for passengers moving from subway to bus. Such a move would raise about $2.5 million and would fall most heavily on those who transfer at District of Columbia stations. That is because bus drivers on D.C. routes accept subway transfers as full fare, while drivers at Maryland and Virginia stations accept the transfers only for partial credit.
A 5-cent or 10-cent charge for all bus transfers, which would raise $700,000 or $1.4 million.
The elimination of reduced subway fares for some Virginia-to-D.C. passengers who cross the Potomac at Rosslyn instead of at the shorter (and therefore cheaper) 14th Street Bridge crossing, which is not yet in operation. That would save $200,000.
The four service-cutting measures:
All bus service would be eliminated between 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., at a savings of $500,000.
All Virginia buses that stop at the Pentagon and then continue across the 14th Street bridge into Washington would be terminated at the Pentagon, at a savings of $500,000.
Weekend bus and subway service would be curtailed. Some bus routes would be eliminated; the intervals between buses would be increased on others. Intervals between trains would be increased and hours of service might be shortened. The amounts that could be saved through each action must be computed.
The Downtowner bus service, which runs only in the District of Columbia on weekdays, would be eliminated at a savings of $200,000. That service cut is already planned by the District government beginning next July.
Metro's budget problem is not unusual for the same reason that family budgets have been skewered: inflation.
In the first six months of this year, Bennewitz reported, labor costs for Metro have exceeded expectations by $3.2 million. That is because Metro's bus drivers, train operators, station attendants and mechanics are guaranteed a quarterly pay increase that matches in percentage the increase in the cost of living.
That controversial contract proposal has continued in effect since March 30, when Metro's contract with the drivers expired, because Metro is required by Congress to resolve labor issues through binding arbitration and the arbitrator has yet to rule on Metro's attempt to modify the cost-of-living clause. Metro has thus been forced to make cost-of-living increase payments in both July and this month that it had hoped to avoid when the budget was drawn.
If the arbitrator maintains the cost-of-living provision, as Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union seeks, the additional labor cost will be $4.2 million. That item accounts for the difference between the two budget shortfall estimates of either $8.6 million or $12.8 million.
If Metro remains serious about service cuts, some bus drivers will be unemployed. At one point yesterday, the committee discussed eliminating all weekend bus service, which would cost 377 bus drivers their jobs. That idea was abonded after D.C. board member Hilda Mason pointed out that the subway -- which would have remained open -- does not run in Anacostia, the Washington area's most transit-dependent neighborhood.
There are two major items in Metro's budget overruns: the increasing price of diesel fuel for the buses (2.6 million) and a heavy, unanticipated requirement to purchase spare parts for the bus fleet ($2 million).