The Metro board finance committee voted Thursday to raise fares for bus and rail riders, reduce train frequencies and slash some bus routes, advancing the agency’s austerity budget to a final vote — but not before slipping in three last-minute amendments to preserve a slew of bus lines that were slated for cancellation or reduction.
Board members approved the $1.8 billion operating budget in the face of numerous concerns, chiefly: whether fare hikes and fewer trains would accelerate a ridership decline that has driven the nation’s second-busiest subway into financial distress.
Metro is facing a $290 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year, and ridership and parking revenue losses — exacerbated by the year-long SafeTrack maintenance program — make up about a third of the shortfall. As board members cautiously advanced the spending plan, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld defended the cuts, which have drawn the ire of riders and transit advocates.
“The way that we bring back ridership is through basically more reliable service,” Wiedefeld said at a news conference after the board meeting. “We have not been able to deliver what we said we were going to deliver. So I think it’s more important to the customer [to] ‘just tell me what I’ve got and then deliver it.’ ”
Rail ridership was down 12 percent compared with a year earlier, the latest figures showed, and has fallen by about 100,000 trips from its 2009 peaks. Metro estimates that the fare increases will result in a total loss of 10 million trips during the 2018 fiscal year. But even with the ridership loss, Metro estimates the fare increase will boost revenue by $21 million.
Rush-hour rail fares would increase by a dime, with $2.25 as the new minimum and $6 as the maximum one-way fare. The plan increases off-peak rail and bus fares 25 cents. The frequency of trains, most of which are scheduled to arrive at least every six minutes, would be reduced to every eight minutes, with more service in the system’s core.
The full board is expected to approve the budget March 23, and the fare increases and service changes would go into effect July 1.
There was little debate over the need for drastic cuts. Wiedefeld, who has eliminated 500 jobs and is in the process of cutting 500 more, has said there are few other sources of savings left for the beleaguered transit agency.
But board member Malcolm Augustine said the fare increases and service cuts are the wrong approach. The lone dissenting vote, he worried the changes would only hasten the ridership decline.
“This is basic economics. You’re raising the price. You’ll lose riders,” he said. “That is a bad business move.”
Wiedefeld, however, called the changes a “strategy” to improve performance.
“If we provide consistent reliable service then that market will come back,” he said.
Aimee Custis, deputy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an advocacy group that promotes pro-transit policy, said it’s illogical to think riders will return with Metro offering less service.
“The thing that will eventually bring people back is frequent, reliable service, and we are headed away from that,” Custis said.
But other board members agreed with Wiedefeld, saying the measures are necessary to balance the agency’s budget.
Board member Jim Corcoran said the fare hikes will help stabilize ridership because a stable budget helps pay for safety and reliability improvements that will win back riders in the long run.
“I think this is a very good business decision to improve the product because an improved product will bring back riders,” he said.
Echoing Wiedefeld, board member Christian Dorsey said Metro could stem the ridership losses by adhering to its promised wait times.
“If we can deliver on what we say we’re putting out there, that would be an improvement,” he said.
Meanwhile, board members from the District, Maryland and Virginia scrambled to insert last-minute changes into the budget to help their constituents. The 11th-hour effort to save bus routes around the region was an about-face for the members, who arrived at the meeting with printed amendments detailing the list of bus routes that they planned to rescue from the chopping block — causing some to question whether the move was an act of long-planned political showmanship.
The District rallied to save routes B8 and B9 — the Fort Lincoln Shuttle Line — and to modify the H6, which runs between Brookland and Fort Lincoln.
Virginia board members offered several changes that they estimated would cost about $500,000 in subsidies for the year. Their list included the full restoration of the 3T in Pimmit Hills, the 1C in Fair Oaks, and the 16G/H/K/X routes that run along Columbia Pike, from Columbia Heights West to Pentagon City.
They also approved some changes to local routes meant to help serve riders affected by the cancellation of the 28X, 7X, 17A and 17F lines.
Members representing Maryland pushed an amendment restoring the following routes: T14 (between Rhode Island Avenue and New Carrollton stations), F1 and F2 (running along Chillum Road), C8 (between College Park and White Flint stations), and the J1, J2 and J3 routes (operating between Bethesda and Silver Spring stations).
Maryland representatives also persuaded the board to allow Metro to continue to operate the J7 and J9 buses through at least October. Those are express buses that run along Interstate 270.
After the meeting, finance committee chairman Michael Goldman said he believes Maryland will be able to pay the approximately $2 million necessary to retain some of those local routes, because there appears to be extra money in the subsidy appropriated by the state legislature to Metro for next year’s bus budget.
Goldman said Metro staff has been asked to come up how much it will cost to save those routes, and the state will pay for them if the cost falls within what it can afford.
“If it fits within the wiggle room, all those services could be restored,” Goldman said.
Dorsey praised the amendments for ensuring the cuts don’t adversely impact riders of Metrobus, “relatively the shining star of Metro at this point,” he said.
But concerns lingered.
Augustine was afraid increasing the bus fare a quarter, to $2, would have a dramatic impact on Metrobus ridership and target low-income and minority riders.
In the original version of the fare increases proposed by Wiedefeld last fall, Metro came close to failing a Title VI analysis — a federally mandated statistical test to ensure that low-income and minority riders are not disproportionately harmed by changes to transit fares or service. Metro said Thursday that the agency’s decision to preserve the $17.50 price of a weekly bus pass was aimed at helping it steer clear of civil rights violations.
Augustine, however, pointed out that only a small percentage of Metrobus riders use the weekly bus-only pass. Following his lone ‘no’ vote, it was announced that the budget had been approved.
But a brief moment of confusion ensued when board members realized they hadn’t heard from member Corbett A. Price, who was looped in via conference call. Perhaps a sign of the general discontent with the situation, Price chimed in: “You may record my vote in favor of it, reluctantly.”