Metro’s largest union is proposing a mix of dedicated taxes, flat fares and expanded service to rescue the agency’s finances and recoup falling ridership, according to a report released Thursday.
In the 13-page plan, titled “Fund It, Fix It, Make it Fair,” Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 lays out its vision for righting the troubled transit agency, which is facing steep financial and reliability challenges that some officials and business leaders have termed a “death spiral.”
“One thing that everybody in this region can agree on is that [Metro is] at a breaking point right now,” Union President Jackie Jeter said in a conference call with reporters. Unless immediate steps are taken, she said, “the system will collapse and the impact it’ll have on our region will be devastating.”
The union, which represents a majority of Metro’s 13,000 workers, joins a chorus of influential groups pushing dedicated Metro funding. But its proposal eschews calls for a one-cent regional sales tax, the preferred mechanism of some regional officials to stabilize funding.
Instead, the union favors creating assessment districts — a type of tax on property owners — in the vicinity of Metro stations, where residents and business typically have higher property values. The plan would also dedicate fees from rental car taxes to Metro, targeting tourist hubs such as Reagan National and Dulles International airports.
“It is only fair that our visitors pay into America’s Subway, just like those of us who use the system daily,” the plan reads.
For riders, the major perk in the union’s proposal would be a $2 flat fare, which the union suggests as a way to reverse a ridership slide that has left daily travel down about 100,000 trips from its 2009 peak of 750,000. The union also calls for Metro to allow free transfers from bus to bus, and between bus and rail, within a two-hour window.
“What we should be doing is working on a ‘win riders back’ campaign,” Jeter said. “Why is [Metro] wedded to an expensive and complicated distance-based fare system?”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld plans to introduce his own proposal for securing the agency’s short- and long-term funding sometime in April.
On Thursday, Metro said it welcomed the union’s ideas and would look into the proposal. But officials were less enthusiastic about the flat fare. Metro said such action would create a revenue hole that would offset any possible ridership surge. To balance out revenue projections, Metro’s flat fare would have to be $3.05 per trip, the agency suggested, higher than the cost of a ride on the New York, Chicago and Boston systems.
In the call, Jeter blamed Wiedefeld’s moves to shore up the system’s finances for pitting riders against workers. And she called on Metro to revisit its decision this month to raise fares and reduce service beginning July 1.
“I think that the board, as well as Metro, prematurely went ahead and implemented the fare increases instead of paying attention to what the riders were saying,” Jeter said.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who supported the fare increase, applauded the union for putting out a plan, and said he would back a $2 flat fare if Virginia, Maryland and the District would be willing to make up the lost revenue through their annual subsidies — or if the region could figure out some other way to pay for it.
Evans was more hesitant about the union’s other major proposal for assessment districts. He instead favored a one-cent sales tax, calling it a simpler mechanism for securing dedicated funding. The union decries sales taxes in its report, saying they take a higher share of income from low-income workers than high-income ones.
“There are shortcomings with it,” Evans said. “I go back to the old saying, ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’ ”
But Evans said assessment districts would be too complicated. And D.C., where he serves as a Democratic Ward 2 council member, would be hit hardest, he said.
“A tax district is just very hard,” he said. “Say you go to Gallery Place, who gets taxed? Where do you draw the line? … It’s not a bad idea. It’s just incredibly complicated. And in a situation like that, it sounds like everybody in the District would be paying a fortune [and] as you go out in the suburban districts, [you] pay much less.”
Other facets of the proposal include amending federal law to let large transit systems, such as Metro, use Federal Transit Administration funds to cover operating costs during crises, and allow increased flexibility to steer FTA funds toward preventive maintenance.
Officials have expressed concern about using federal funds for day-to-day costs, saying the practice defers the system’s long-term needs. Union officials contend, however, that if Metro can’t cover it’s operating and maintenance requirements, the need for capital funding swells in the future.
The union prepared the report in conjunction with parent chapter ATU International. The document concludes with a stark warning for the agency as it seeks to maintain riders amid reduced service, trimmed operating hours and fare hikes.
“The key to restoring [Metro] is to bring back our customers, and that can only happen if they are provided with safe, affordable, reliable, and convenient transit service,” it reads. “Driving our remaining riders away is a ridiculous plan that is sure to bury the system.”