Metro’s budget deficit is expected to be $6 million less than originally projected, down from $72 million to $66 million for the fiscal year that begins in July, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said Thursday.

The positive financial news will provide Metro’s Board of Directors with greater options as it weighs how to close the gap in Metro’s $1.4 billion operating budget.

Metro will hold public hearings May 16-19 in Maryland, Virginia and the District to solicit comment from riders on possible budget-cutting measures. Those options include reductions in weekend rail service that would save Metro about $6.6 million. The cuts would increase the time between trains on Saturday and Sunday by five to six minutes during the day and up to 25 minutes after 9:30 p.m.

Sarles told the board at a meeting Thursday that the $6 million reduction in the deficit came from two main sources. Metro’s projected expenses are $2 million lower than expected when the budget was unveiled in January, he said. In addition, a slight improvement in the jobs data used in Metro’s econometric models pushed ridership and revenue projections up by $4 million.

Rising gas prices will probably further increase ridership and revenue, Sarles said, although gas prices so far have not produced any quantifiable ridership gains.

“We are doing better on ridership,” he said, with the numbers more closely approaching Metro’s budget projections.

Metro suffered significant declines in bus ridership earlier in the year and smaller shortfalls in rail ridership, and the actual ridership figures remain below budget projections. Metro said the unemployment rate was a major contributor, but a fare increase implemented last year also depressed ridership.

The board on Thursday swore in three new members: Alvin Nichols and Michael Barnes of Maryland and Anthony Giancola, who had resigned as a District member and was named as a federal government appointee. Metro’s board has places for four federal members, but so far only three have been appointed, Giancola and two in early 2010.

The Metro board has undergone historic turnover since December, making Giancola one of the longest-serving members. Seven new members have been named since December, while an eighth, Giancola, is serving in a different role.

Metro’s leadership and board have embraced safety as their top priority, approving a $5 billion capital funding program to upgrade and repair the deteriorating transit system. One area where maintenance has lagged is with the system’s escalators, which have suffered a string of breakdowns in recent months as well as other incidents involving customers.

In the latest incident, a 52-year-old woman fell into an open escalator access hatch at the Pentagon Station on April 20, suffering a knee injury and laceration to her chin. She was hospitalized and released April 22. Metro officials said the hatch should not have been left open and that two Metro escalator technicians were fired after the incident.