Things could get a lot more painful for beleaguered Metro riders as the agency looks to close an anticipated $275 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year by possibly raising fares, cutting bus routes and shutting low-use stations during nonpeak hours.
Those are among the options that staff laid out in a report released Tuesday to prep Metro board members for the upcoming budget negotiations.
Budget staff members argue, for example, that bus fares could be raised from $1.75 to $2 without a significant impact on ridership because Metrobus riders are mostly satisfied customers. They propose raising Metro fares seven to 10 cents per mile but acknowledge that rail customers also are most likely to abandon the system because they are among the most dissatisfied. Under the proposal, the maximum $5.90 one-way peak fare would increase to $6.
“The risk to ridership on bus appears relatively low, since $2 still represents a good value proposition for most services,” staff members said in the presentation. “The risk to rail ridership is higher, as customer dissatisfaction with service reliability is substantial.”
Other options suggested are likely to be viewed as equally unpalatable: cutting bus routes. Longer headways between trains. Closing unpopular stations during off-peak hours. More layoffs. Winnowed-down benefits for workers.
In short, the report paints a worst-case scenario. But the situation could be eased, at least in part, by an increase in subsidies from the District, Maryland and Virginia, or another decision to fund part of the operating budget by spending federal money designated for long-term investments.
The board’s finance committee is scheduled to discuss the report Thursday. General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is expected to share his proposed fiscal 2018 budget Nov. 3.
“These are not good trade-offs. This is a horrible budget year,” said finance committee chairman Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland. He cited lost revenue from declining ridership, as well as the cost of a year’s worth of SafeTrack repairs.
“But,” Goldman added, “we’ve got to find a solution.”
Even Wiedefeld has acknowledged that fare hikes in the midst of SafeTrack disruptions would be a hard sell to exasperated Metro customers. And though Goldman has said for months that fare increases should be an option for balancing the budget, he’s likely to get serious pushback from other board members — particularly those representing the District.
Metro board chairman Jack Evans, a member of the D.C. Council, vowed Tuesday to veto any fare hikes.
“I don’t support fare increases, I don’t support taking money out of the capital budget, I don’t support selling assets,” Evans said. “These are all just proven bad ideas.”
His answer for Metro’s money woes: more funding from the jurisdictions. Period. And if they don’t want to come up with the money, he said, they’ll have to face painful service cuts.
“This is the time,” Evans said. “They really have to decide what they want to do. Do you want Metro, or do you not want Metro?”
The top elected officials from the District, Maryland and Virginia were scheduled to have an initial discussion Wednesday about funding for the agency and other transit issues following a joint appearance before regional business leaders.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) were to hold their first regional summit, where officials said they also were expected to announce plans to cooperate more closely in combating opioid abuse.
Before their private meeting, the three officials planned to participate in an hour-long panel discussion hosted by three local chambers of commerce: the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce. Afterward, they were scheduled to receive a briefing from Wiedefeld.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) sent a letter Tuesday to the three urging them to lead “a serious regional conversation . . . about what will be needed to restore Metrorail to world-class status and ensure it is sustained for today and for future generations.”
The letter, signed by the top COG board members from Maryland, Virginia and the District, said such an effort would include the need for Metro’s funding partners “to steer Metro toward a solid financial foundation.”
The report by Metro staff to its board also included an argument for the need for increased operating funding from the three. Staff members asserted that the only way to avoid sizable service reductions would be for the three jurisdictions to increase their contributions.
“Given the current ridership challenges, a substantial subsidy increase will be nearly impossible to avoid unless a decision is made to substantially cut service,” they wrote.
Board member Carol Carmody said she, too, is resistant to fare increases.
“I would not support fare increases right now. I want to look at other options,” said Carmody, who represents the federal government. “I’m a strong believer in SafeTrack, but it’s not been easy for riders. I don’t think you want to add another problem that’s going to keep people off the subway.”
A 15 percent increase in bus fares could be hard on low-income riders who often opt for bus service over Metro because it’s less expensive.
Combined, the bus and rail fare hikes would cost Metro an estimated 1 percent of its rail ridership and 4 percent of its bus ridership, staff said. But even in that scenario, the fare increases would still generate an additional $48 million annually, officials estimated.
Budget staff members note that board policy is to allow fares to increase with inflation and to generally institute a small fare hike every other year.
“The goal is for fare increases to be modest and predictable,” staff wrote in their message to the board. “However, WMATA chose to forego any fare increases for [fiscal year 2017] due to service and ridership challenges.”
If bus fares increase by 25 cents, the minimum price of MetroAccess also could increase. Under federal law, fares for the door-to-door paratransit service for the elderly and people with disabilities cannot exceed twice the price of comparable bus or rail service. If bus fares increase to $2, MetroAccess fares would be allowed to increase to $4.
The agency intends to hold off on making any changes to parking fees. Staff members note that the agency is in the beginning stages of contracting parking services to a private company and that “parking fees could be re-evaluated following the completion of that process.”
As for service reductions, there are several strategies on the table, such as eliminating bus routes with poor ridership and the highest subsidy-per-rider. Increasing headways between trains is another option. Among the more drastic options being proposed is choosing the 20 Metro stations with the lowest ridership and closing them during off-peak periods. Most of those stations are at the outer ends of the system.
“We’ve known this is coming,” said board member Malcolm Augustine, who represents Prince George’s County. “But from our discussions, we knew that all of the options needed to be on the table.”
Augustine said he hasn’t ruled out any of the proposals because he wants the discussions to be as open as possible — and he thinks there’s room for Metro to function more efficiently. In the end, he said, he expects that “there’s going to have to be some shared pain across the board.”
“There is not an endless supply of money for us to do these things,” he said. “The gap is so large there really is no other way. It’s going to be very hard on everybody.”
But Augustine also held out some hope. He said he’s optimistic that SafeTrack and other systemwide efforts focused on improving safety and reliability will win back riders.
Public hearings on the agency’s budget are usually held in January and February. The board must vote on a fiscal 2018 budget by March.
Robert McCartney contributed to this report.