Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is proposing higher fares, substantial service cuts and significantly more money from the jurisdictions the agency serves to make up for flagging ridership and rising costs that have put the system into a deep financial hole for the coming fiscal year.
In a budget proposal Metro calls a “reality check,” Wiedefeld also cuts 1,000 jobs, including 300 bus and train operators, mechanics and supervisors.
Rush-hour rail fares would increase 10 cents, with $2.25 as the new minimum and a $6 maximum one way. Off-peak fares would be 25 cents more; bus fares also would increase 25 cents, to $2.
Trains on almost every line would run less frequently during peak periods and outside rush hour, headway between trains would grow to 15 minutes. Bus routes with the lowest ridership would be axed.
“Good God, we should applaud people who are still riding this thing, not punish them,” said Metro board Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a D.C. Council member. He called the 25-cent bus fare increase “unconscionable,” citing its impact on low-income residents.
And even with those stark cuts, Metro is still seeking an additional $130 million from the District, Virginia and Maryland to help close an expected $290 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — $15 million more than estimated in recent presentations to the board.
“Metro has to face reality when it comes to what the region says it can afford and direct those resources to best serve the riders we have today,” Wiedefeld said in a statement. “This plan has Metro doing everything in our power to get major expense categories under control while improving safety and making the trains run on time.”
But the bare-bones budget raises the question of whether the cost-saving measures will stem Metro’s “death spiral” or hasten it by exacerbating one of the primary causes for declining fare revenue: riders abandoning the system.
Rail ridership has fallen 11 percent over the past year. A consultant’s report presented to the board this summer warned that if current trends continue, the agency will face a budget shortfall of $1.1 billion by 2020.
SafeTrack, the agency’s year-long maintenance blitz, has added to those losses, causing estimated ridership drops of up to 15 percent systemwide.
Evans on Sunday reiterated an earlier pledge to veto any fare increase, saying riders have suffered enough from Metro’s declining service. Board member Corbett A. Price, who also represents the District, said he does not support higher fares either, but stopped short of saying he would exercise the city’s veto authority.
Other board members argued that the “shared pain” approach is the only way to get Metro back on firm financial footing — and that the willingness to cut costs by firing workers and inconveniencing riders would curry favor with Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions resistant to the idea of paying more to fund a system that hasn’t shown demonstrable improvement.
“I think it’s unavoidable,” said board member Michael Goldman, who chairs the panel’s finance committee. Goldman said the size of the fare increases was “right on the mark.”
The $1.8 billion operating budget assumes ridership for the coming fiscal year that is down more than 20 percent from 2009 levels. The combination of fare increases and service cuts would generate about $50 million, Metro said.
The $130 million in increased contributions from the District, Maryland and Virginia breaks down as follows: $47 million from the District, $44 million from Maryland and $39 million from Virginia.
That’s about 15 percent more than the three are paying now, and it’s those numbers that concern Goldman most.
“I’d like to bring the increase below $100 million,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland. “I think that’s a big hit on the jurisdictions. I don’t know if that’s doable.”
Matthew F. Letourneau, vice chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and its highest-ranking Republican, praised Wiedefeld.
“Overall, it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Letourneau, who is also a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. Wiedefeld “has shown willingness repeatedly to take bold action that may not be politically popular to do what’s necessary to right the system.”
Said Letourneau: “Metro is in very, very dire straits — and when you’re in that type of situation, you have to put absolutely everything on the table. And all those things that the general manager is putting on the table . . . it gives him the credibility to make a request for a jurisdictional increase.”
Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said Sunday that the agency would have no comment because it hasn’t seen the proposed budget. However, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said recently that any increase in the state’s direct subsidy to Metro would not be possible without better safety and customer service.
“We’ve got to see some real improvement before we commit to more money,” Hogan said Oct. 21 at a breakfast event sponsored by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce. “If it’s not reliable and it’s not safe, people are not going to use it. So first, we’ve got to fix some of those problems.”
Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, praised the budget for spreading the burden.
“The proposed budget appears to be a fair balance,” Bulova (D) said. “I appreciate Mr. Wiedefeld’s approach, which includes thoughtful reductions combined with increased funding.”
In Virginia, the increased contributions to cover the operating budget deficit would come from local governments including Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria.
Wiedefeld’s budget relies less on the use of federal capital funds to pay for operating costs. Last year, Metro used $95 million in long-term federal grants as a stopgap measure to pay for short-term needs. But Congress has warned the agency that it risks its capital funding if this sort of budgetary “bait-and-switch” becomes an annual practice. This year, Metro will use $60 million from that pot.
The proposal assumes no general increase in wages, even though Metro is negotiating with unions seeking an across-the-board pay increase.
The budget, which Wiedefeld is expected to formally present to the board Thursday, will go through a series of public hearings before a final vote in March. The changes would go into effect in July — and by then, Metro said, SafeTrack work will have begun to translate into improved safety and reliability for riders.
Even so, the prospect of fare increases and service cuts is sure to anger riders who have dealt with chronic service disruptions and delays, compounded by the start of SafeTrack in June, with little indication that things have improved.
The budget proposal would further cut Metrorail and Metrobus service, increasing average rail wait times during peak hours from six minutes to eight minutes, and eliminating about a dozen unspecified “low-ridership” bus routes. Metro said trains would arrive every two to four minutes at transfer stations in the system’s core. But outside peak hours, trains would arrive every 15 minutes.
The proposal would reduce Blue Line wait times from 12 minutes to eight minutes but eliminate Yellow Line “Rush Plus” service, which many riders south of the Pentagon use to commute to and from the District.
In addition to the increased cost of bus and train rides, the minimum fare for MetroAccess paratransit service would increase by 50 cents, to $4. The maximum fare would remain at $6.50.
The cost of daily parking would increase by 10 cents.
Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) indicated she was open to fare increases but would not support price hikes or service cuts that she thought disproportionately affected D.C. residents or bus riders.
The budget presentation makes no mention of costs for potential after-hours bus service if the board agrees to extend the current moratorium on late-night train service — an early sign that the agency has no current plan to provide buses to get workers home at night.
Wiedefeld and Metro staff had warned in recent weeks about the need for “painful choices” as declining ridership and growing costs have exacerbated the transit agency’s financial woes.
On Friday, Wiedefeld informed staff in an email that he is notifying 100 workers and managers that they are being laid off — part of an earlier plan to eliminate 500 positions through layoffs, attrition and unfilled positions.
Despite the gloomy picture painted by the proposed budget, Evans maintained that he thinks Wiedefeld is simply laying all options on the table. The final decision, he said, is in the board’s hands.
“I think Paul wants to put all the options out there and this is now a board decision, not a general manager’s decision,” Evans said. “My opinion remains the same as it always is, and I’ll tell you what it is. The jurisdictions need to pick up the entire (tab) . . . except for the personnel changes.”