Metro board members are at odds over whether to support General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposed budget, which includes several service changes aimed at winning back riders but also come with a hefty price tag.
Wiedefeld’s spending plan, officially presented to the board Thursday, includes increasing the frequency of service to the suburban stations on the Red and Yellow lines, expanding the window of rush-hour service in the mornings and evenings, and transitioning to the use of eight-car trains exclusively.
At a meeting of the panel’s finance committee, some board members argued that the proposed improvements, which are estimated to cost $20 million annually, are necessary to resuscitate flagging ridership. Others worried that the enhancements would be prohibitively expensive for the jurisdictions that subsidize Metro’s annual operating costs.
“This is going to be a really tough budget for the board to work through,” board member Christian Dorsey said. “We’re going to have to really roll up our sleeves and make some interesting trade-offs.”
Board member Michael Goldman went as far as to advocate for raising fares next summer to help pay for the initiatives on the table.
“It’s like Whole Foods,” Goldman said in an extended metaphor that carried on throughout the debate. He said that those who want a high-quality product — akin to the organic tomatoes sold at posh grocery stores — should be willing to tolerate slightly higher prices.
“Maybe this rider should pay a little more for this increased quality of service,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland.
But the optics of such a move would be unfavorable for Metro, which has cut service in the two years since the last round of fare increases.
And Metro’s leaders have said they have no plans to make such a move. Wiedefeld’s budget does not include a fare increase. In fact, he has proposed instituting a flat $2 fare for Saturdays and Sundays — where ridership losses have been dramatic — to encourage more people to use the system on weekends. He also has proposed reducing the price of the day- and week-long unlimited passes that are popular with tourists.
Goldman’s idea found little support. At one point, alternate member Malcolm Augustine put a hand over his face while Goldman was talking, saying after the meeting that he disagreed with Goldman’s position.
Board member Jim Corcoran, who represents Virginia, immediately shut down the idea of a fare increase. “I do want to assure everyone that Michael speaking about organic versus Jersey tomatoes was not the official position of this board. I will take a Jersey tomato anytime.”
Board Chairman Jack Evans said he would quash any attempts to increase fares this year. Riders simply would not abide it, he said, whether those service improvements would be on par with expensive produce.
“I don’t go to Whole Foods,” Evans said. “I go to Safeway because I don’t want to pay more.”
Beyond the talk about fare increases, board members spoke more largely about having to weigh the potential benefits for beleaguered riders against the cost to taxpayers.
“The notion that expanded service is good but also is not free is something that needs to be acknowledged,” board member Steve McMillin said.
Wiedefeld’s budget, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, does not propose restoring late-night service, which was curtailed in 2016 to give track workers more time for inspections and repairs. Wiedefeld said Thursday that he plans to put an item on the board’s December agenda to discuss whether there is a way to restore some late-night weekend service next year without cutting into the hours that maintenance workers need.
The ideas offered by Wiedefeld this week also focus exclusively on improvements to rail service, with almost no plans to change the frequency or reach of Metrobus service.
Wiedefeld said he is leery of making widespread changes to the bus system while he awaits the results of a top-to-bottom study from consultants on how to revamp Metrobus operations — a study that could potentially result in a major overhaul of the service routes and timetables for every neighborhood.
“That is a much longer issue,” Wiedefeld said. “It’s not going to happen in time for this budget.”
One thing that Metro’s capital budget is likely to include for the coming fiscal year: money to buy an office building in L’Enfant Plaza that will serve as Metro’s new headquarters.
Metro announced this week that it has identified a preferred site for its new headquarters — a vacant building at 300 Seventh Street SW that formerly housed NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture offices. Officials hope the board will approve the purchase this month. The transit agency’s building at Judiciary Square urgently needs repairs that would prove costly, and officials say that selling the property and moving to a new building will save money in the long run.
Nina Albert, Metro’s managing director for real estate and parking, did not reveal how much the agency is offering for the property at L’Enfant Plaza but she said a developer bought the building in 2006 for $59 million. Since then, it has been largely vacant. And now, she said, Metro is poised to spend less than $59 million.
“It’s a good deal for Metro,” Albert said.