Osama Iqab unfurled a poster-size photograph of a crammed 18P Metrobus, hoping the image would stick with Metro board members and convince them to preserve his bus route — which is slated for elimination to help close a looming budget gap.
“I would more than love to live in D.C.,” the 28-year-old told the board Monday night as he explained that he lives in Burke Centre in Fairfax, Va., because his family there depends on him. “If you get rid of those routes, you’re literally getting rid of a major transportation mode for me to get into work.”
The line, which connects Burke Centre to the District via the Pentagon, is one of three dozen routes that would be cut or modified to help Metro close a $290 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Iqab was one of the hundreds of Metro customers and employees who packed the agency’s headquarters Monday night to protest the cuts and fare hikes in General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposed $1.8 billion operating budget for fiscal 2018.
For once, the hordes of riders who filled the boardroom were not there to harp on the problems of the beleaguered rail system. Instead, most were there to extol the virtues of the agency’s bus system, which they praised as a vital community resource and a bright spot within the troubled system — something that actually works.
So why mess with it?
Metro estimates that cutting the bus routes would result in a $3 million loss in revenue in fiscal 2018 but would save the transit agency $17 million in the long term.
“I don’t want to ride the train,” said Anthony Wilson, 57, who rides the W13 and W14 routes, which will be eliminated or restructured if the cuts go through. “Why would you want to try to feed more people on the subway when you’re already having problems? I’ll pay more. I’ll pay more. As long as they leave the service as it is.”
To close the gap, Wiedefeld has proposed a mix of fare increases and service cuts: bus fares would increase a quarter, to $2 a ride. For Metro riders, the minimum and maximum rush-hour fares would increase 10 cents, to $2.25 and $6, respectively. In addition, Metro’s workforce would be trimmed by about 1,000 positions if the cuts go through; half of those positions have already been eliminated.
But it was bus passengers who provided the vast majority of testimony Monday, as they pleaded with officials to preserve their routes, some which they said are their only connection to the rest of the Washington region. Others feared losing the familiarity and intimacy of routes they’ve come to depend on.
Among the early speakers was Indian Head Mayor Brandon Paulin, 21, the youngest mayor in Maryland’s history and an ardent defender of the W19 route, which is slated for elimination. He said the route is the town’s only commuter bus into the District, depositing riders on the city’s southeast edge at Southern Avenue.
“In Charles County, it’s not like calling an Uber’s really easy,” Paulin said. “To my constituents, there are quite a few that said they’re going to have to find a new job. To me, that’s not acceptable. We can’t leave families on the streets.”
Ed Der pleaded with board members to save the J7 and J9 routes, which serve locations along Interstate 270. “Bus lines provide a service that rail can’t,” Der said. “Leave the bus lines alone. Cutting service or eliminating lines is not the answer.”
Khemise Walton of Burtonsville, Md., has compartment syndrome, a painful condition affecting the muscles in both legs, tied to her Army service and said cutting her route would leave her with two options: walk a mile to the next nearest bus route to get to her job at the National Institutes of Health, or drive.
“In Burtonsville, we don’t have any public transportation as it is,” she said, asking the board to save her segment of the Z11. “I think that you all should rethink the budget cuts. . . . I think that you all should rethink everything.”
About 90 people spoke during the four-hour hearing, which filled a boardroom and an overflow room and drew more interest than the marathon, 10-hour October hearing on late-night service cuts, where 63 spoke.
Wiedefeld said he was moved by the comments and the level of interest, adding that Metro has “difficult decisions” ahead. Wiedefeld will unveil a modified proposal in the coming weeks, and the board is expected to approve the final budget in March.
The general manager said he was struck by “the impact that it has on people’s lives, particularly their service.”
“But we also have to deal with the financial realities,” he said. “We’ll obviously think through what I proposed. And we’ll come back with something. We’ll do our best to try do everything we can, but within the construct of what we face.”
The Metro board’s chairman, Jack Evans, said the District, Maryland and Virginia should give Metro the $50 million it needs to stave off fare hikes and service cuts.
The three jurisdictions already have tentatively agreed to give Metro the money that Wiedefeld requested in his budget. The $50 million would be in addition to that.
If not, Evans said, Metro may opt to push some of its preventive maintenance costs to the capital budget and pay for it with federal grant money — a measure the agency employed last year despite persistent warnings from top officials. Evans himself said in September that such a maneuver was risky and pledged not to employ it again, and Wiedefeld on Monday called it a “slippery slope.”
“It’s a terrible idea, but we’re not given any alternative,” Evans said. “What I would hope is we request more money from the jurisdictions and eliminate the service cuts and the fare increases. I highly doubt that’s going to happen, but that’s what I would do.”
The threat of further job cuts provoked fierce protest from union officials, who defended the agency’s ridership and ripped what they described as extreme cost-cutting measures.
“Our service makes it possible for children to get to school, parents getting to work to provide for their families, mothers and fathers to buy groceries and clothes for their children, and people to get access to parts of the region that will help them advance in their lives and their economic situations,” said Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents a majority of Metro’s 13,000 employees. “We say no to the budget cuts, and we’d appreciate it if you heard us.”
There wasn’t so much as a lull during the hearing, as a full slate of speakers occupied all four hours allotted for testimony.
And while bus access was a major concern, some also feared the loss of their daily routine. Wilson waxed nostalgic about his daily commutes on the W13, which he rides from Fort Washington to Seventh Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, to get to his job at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
“We get on the bus, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ ” he said. “It’s like family. . . . It’s just like a little get-together with your neighbors. We care about each other. And it kind of forces other relationships — you start hanging out.
“We all ride the same bus.”
Martine Powers contributed to this report.