Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has proposed a budget for the coming fiscal year that is aimed at winning back riders by giving them something they have been begging for — more service. The catch is that the changes he is proposing would require more money from the jurisdictions that fund the transit agency.
Among the proposals included in the budget released Monday are expanding rush hour, extending Yellow Line service to Greenbelt, running all Red Line trains to Glenmont, and expanding all trains to eight cars. Wiedefeld also proposed a flat $2 fare for weekends.
The proposed spending plan, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, does not include fare increases.
Wiedefeld said that Metro must “get better than good” if it hopes to reverse a long, steep decline in ridership. To do that, the District, Maryland and Virginia will have to pony up as much as $20 million more to cover the cost.
Asking lawmakers for more could be a tough sell coming on the heels of the historic deal the three jurisdictions reached to provide the agency with $500 million a year in new, permanent funding Metro says it needs for capital investments to ensure safety and reliability.
That money — on top of the operating subsidy the three already provide — will help pay for a 10-year investment program totaling $15.5 billion. Metro has said the money will be used for things such as buying new rail cars and buses, upgrading track and power systems and modernizing stations.
The dedicated funding law limits the growth in the operating subsidies the jurisdictions contribute to 3 percent, and Wiedefeld’s proposal exceeds that amount. Some Metro board members wondered whether local elected officials would balk at being asked for even more.
“It seems like kind of a bridge too far,” said board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland.
“Having any additional money flow to Metro . . . is going to require an extremely high threshold, if it’s possible at all,” said board member Christian Dorsey, who represents Virginia.
Wiedefeld’s statement to the region in announcing his proposal seemed to acknowledge the tough task ahead.
“While there are a number of improvements such as pass discounts and automatic train operations that we can do within the new cap on subsidy growth,” he said, referencing some of the other changes he plans to implement in the next year, “the service improvements I am including in this budget will need the region’s support and the Board’s approval.”
Transitioning to all eight-car trains on all lines, for example, which would increase rush-hour capacity in the system, would mean an additional $10.3 million a year in operating costs, the agency said.
Wiedefeld’s proposal to permanently extend Yellow Line service to Greenbelt, rather than reversing trains at Mount Vernon Square or Fort Totten before sending them back to Northern Virginia, would cost an estimated $3 million more a year.
The transit agency is also seeking to end its use of Red Line “turnbacks,” where trains return to the downtown core before serving the end of a line during rush hour. All Red Line trains would run to Glenmont, which would double rush-hour service on the northeastern end of the Red Line. The annual cost: $1.2 million.
Wiedefeld’s proposal also would expand rush-hour service with an extra 30 minutes of peak service in the morning (ending at 10 a.m.) and an hour and a half in the evening (concluding at 8:30 p.m.), for an additional two hours total. The change would cost Metro an estimated $8.2 million a year but could bring in $2.8 million in extra revenue annually, the agency said.
Metro board member Steve McMillin, who represents the federal government, recently questioned the value of spending significant additional money for relatively marginal gains in ridership.
But Monday, McMillin said he was heartened by Wiedefeld’s plan to expand the weekday rush-hour windows — times when traffic on the roads is often still heavy enough that Metro remains an attractive alternative.
“These are times where we still can have a speed and reliability advantage versus the roads . . . while minimizing the impact on maintenance and inspection activity,” McMillin said. “Even so, this additional service requires an increase in net operating subsidy that will be paid by the jurisdictions.
“Something else would have to give,” he said.
Wiedefeld also wants to lower the cost of unlimited subway and bus passes, which are typically used by tourists making three or more Metro trips per day. A 1-day pass would drop to $13 from $14.75, and a 7-day pass would drop to $58 from $60. A week-long unlimited bus pass would cost $15, instead of $17.50. Metro would also institute a $28 three-day pass.
The budget proposal also asks for $37 million to start preparing for the opening of Phase 2 of the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, which is expected to open sometime after 2020. Additionally, the plan includes retroactive pay increases awarded by an arbitrator to members of Amalgamated Transit Union 689, the agency’s largest labor union.
Metro board Chairman Jack Evans said if all of Wiedefeld’s proposals are adopted, it will mean a significant increase in annual subsidy costs to Metro — well above the 3 percent cap.
The additional $20 million would be split roughly three ways, according to Metro. Ultimately, the District and Maryland would be looking at increasing their annual operating subsidy by 7 percent. Virginia’s would increase roughly 17 percent, Metro said, but that’s because the jurisdiction is responsible for the bulk of the costs for ramping up operations on phase 2 of the Silver Line, such as training new operators.
However, there is a caveat to the dedicated funding law: If Metro increases services beyond what it is obligated to provide, it can ask the jurisdictions for more money to pay for them.
Evans, who is a D.C. Council member, said he thinks the District would be willing to pay more, though he acknowledged that he has not received approval from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
“The District will be evaluating the value and affordability of these proposals during the WMATA budget process that is just getting underway,” said LaToya Foster, spokeswoman for Bowser. “It is premature to have an opinion on these proposals.”
Goldman said if Metro wants to dramatically increase the quality of service — and request millions more to pay for it — the transit agency should at least take a look at the prospect of small fare increases.
“If something is worth more, it should earn higher revenue,” Goldman said. “So, theoretically, if the riders are enjoying all these service improvements, perhaps they should be willing to pay a little more for them as well.”
Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-District 1) called Wiedefeld’s proposed service improvements “very important” and vital to the continued health of Metro.
“It’s time to go beyond the campaign of ‘Back to Good.’ We expect this to be a world-class system,” Berliner said, adding that he supports the state of Maryland paying more for more service. “We need to get past safety alone. We need to improve the service to attract riders because the loss of riders is the greatest threat to the system.”
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth, called the budget proposal “an important step in the right direction.” But, he said the budget does not adequately address one of the biggest issues that he says deters would-be riders from taking Metro, particularly on weekends.
“While the reduced weekend fare is welcome, better still for ridership would be an increase in frequency,” he said.
Dorsey, who is a member of the Arlington County Board, also was skeptical that a flat fare would encourage more people to use the system on weekends — vs. the prospect of showing up at a station and having to wait 25 minutes for a train.
Dorsey said he would need more information before he could decide, as an Arlington board member — or a Metro board member — whether the needs outlined by Wiedefeld are truly the best use of the region’s money.