Metro’s board gave final approval Thursday to fare increases and service cuts as part of an austere fiscal 2018 budget aimed at easing the transit agency’s financial struggles.
Beginning July 1, peak-period rail fares will increase 10 cents, with $2.25 as the new minimum and $6 as the maximum one-way fare. Off-peak fares will rise 25 cents, to $2, as will bus fares.
It’s the first fare hike in three years for the beleaguered system, which has struggled to rehabilitate its image since the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke calamity that killed 61-year-old Carol Glover of Alexandria and injured scores of riders. Since then, Metro has instituted a regimen of maintenance work aimed at restoring the system to a state of good repair, but the chronic service disruptions and slowdowns have frustrated many riders, who have fled the system at historic rates.
As part of changes approved in the $1.8 billion operating budget, riders also will spend more time on platforms, as trains arrive about every eight minutes across most of the system, with more frequent service in the downtown core. But there will be fewer trains overall on five of six rail lines.
The budget’s approval comes after months of debate in the region about whether fare hikes were the proper course of action for a system losing riders amid ongoing safety and reliability problems. Daily weekday rail trips are down about 100,000 from their 2009 peak. The drastic measures, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said, are the result of a system that has long been neglected.
“This is a very large system. It hasn’t been invested in at the level we should have been investing over the years,” Wiedefeld said Thursday. “We unfortunately have felt the pain of that. And we’re trying to turn that around. And to do that, it’s everything from getting more hours [through] the service cut or more time to do maintenance out there to dealing with the financial realities that we have.”
Wiedefeld acknowledged that higher fares will be a burden on some customers, especially low-income riders, but he said, “there’s expenses tied to delivering that service.” He said Metro has done all it can to close a $290 million anticipated shortfall by taking aggressive management actions, such as eliminating 500 positions and his plan to cut another 500 this year. The agency also has instituted a freeze on expenses that are not critical for safety, sought higher subsidies from the jurisdictions it serves and tapped operating surpluses from prior years to cover expenses.
“But at the end of the day, there’s still costs that need to be met,” Wiedefeld said.
The final vote was largely a ceremonial one, as the budget had already been approved by Metro’s Finance Committee, made up of the full board. Still, at one point, Thursday’s meeting erupted into disorder when demonstrators were turned away from the packed boardroom. Union members, activists and area transit officials had jammed into the committee room when, shortly before the vote, two demonstrators were barred from entering.
A plainclothes officer forcibly restrained one man from getting inside, resulting in a scuffle. ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter eventually came to the demonstrators’ defense and offered her seat to 23-year-old activist Chauniece Jones of Southeast Washington, who was allowed in. Jones wore a shirt that read, in part, “vote no fare hikes.”
“We’re the ones affected by it. Not them,” Jones said of the board. “Without us, how are y’all making money? So the train’s just going to operate by itself with no people on the train?”
Jeter said the budget-approval process showed that Metro officials ignored the will of employees and the riding public, even as they held hours-long public hearings ostensibly to hear their concerns.
“I think that they were hellbent on doing what they wanted to do,” said Jeter, whose union represents a majority of Metro’s 13,000 employees. “Because if they had listened to the public outcry, if they had listened to the opinions that people had about the budget and how they were going about it and what they were going to cut . . . then they would have done something different. . . . They didn’t.”
But Metro officials said there was little more they could do to rescue the agency’s finances for the next fiscal year. The budget was approved largely as drafted in October, but the revised spending plan includes small-scale changes aimed at easing some of riders’ pain and responding to concerns raised at January’s public hearing.
Metro will keep $5 million worth of bus routes originally slated for elimination, and the price for weekly bus passes will remain $17.50. Although train frequencies will be reduced during peak periods, the revised budget eliminates reductions in off-peak service. The proposal originally called for off-peak headways to stretch to 15 minutes.
Wiedefeld has called the budget “tough medicine for the region.”
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said the final budget, which also borrows $60 million of capital funds to support operating needs, represents a regional compromise. Evans, who is also a D.C. Council member, initially vowed to veto any fare hikes but said that Metro’s grim financial picture forced him to change his mind.
“If I had my druthers, I would not have voted for fare increases,” Evans said. “I would not have voted for service cuts. And I would not have voted for using money from our capital preventive maintenance fund to fund our operating dollars.”
The District, Virginia and Maryland agreed earlier in the budget process to provide a combined $130 million in additional funds to support Metro’s budget needs.
“There are no longer places to go to get funding other than the jurisdictions,” Evans said.
Jeter said the budget process and ongoing contract negotiations have taken a toll on union membership.
Contract negotiations between the agency and the union have “broken down,” she said, adding that the union’s relationship with management is the worst it has been since she took over as president a decade ago.
Still, Wiedefeld said that the actions taken will ultimately benefit the struggling agency, which was echoed by Evans.
“Come July 1, we’ll be out of SafeTrack. I think we’ll be that much further along in our car maintenance with our new cars. Again, I think the performance level will go up,” Wiedefeld said. “It won’t be [fixed] by July 2 . . . issues will happen, but I think they’ll get further and further apart and not as deep when they do happen.”