Metro will move forward with a previously announced plan to increase fares and reduce service as part of an effort to balance its operating budget for the coming fiscal year.
In a statement released Monday, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld acknowledged that the austere budget is “tough medicine for the region” but said it’s necessary to keep the transit agency out of dire financial straits.
The Metro board is expected to approve Wiedefeld’s revised spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The proposal will be voted on by the board’s finance committee Thursday and will go to the full board later this month.
Board Chairman Jack Evans said at a meeting last week that he plans to support the fare increases and service cuts because he sees no other options to close a $290 million shortfall.
“This is one of those budgets where nobody gets everything they want, but at the end of the day, it’s a responsible budget,” Evans said.
Wiedefeld’s final budget proposal is largely the same as the one he floated late last year: peak-period rail fares would increase 10 cents, with $2.25 as the new minimum and $6 as the maximum one-way fare. Off-peak fares would increase a quarter; bus fares also would increase 25 cents, to $2.
But the revised $1.8 billion operating budget includes a few small-scale changes to placate riders who voiced concerns at a public hearing early this year. Weekly bus passes will remain at the current price, $17.50. Wait times between trains will be reduced to eight minutes during peak travel periods, but headways will remain the same during off-peak times. (Originally, Wiedefeld proposed that off-peak headways could grow to as much as 15 minutes.)
And officials have decided to restore $5 million for bus routes that had been slated for elimination. Metro originally proposed to save $17 million by altering or eliminating up to three dozen bus routes.
Though some buses will still be cut, Metro said those cuts will not affect users of the MetroAccess paratransit service.
Officials said they also intend to add some lifeline bus service to help riders previously dependent on late-night trains. That will cost the agency about $2 million.
“Metro listened very carefully to our customers who said they would prefer to pay a little more than lose key rail and bus services,” Wiedefeld said in a statement.
But even with those revisions, the upcoming budget will probably be seen as draconian, particularly to riders who have already suffered under nine months of SafeTrack-related delays and service reductions. Ridership has declined significantly in the past year, and Metro board members remain concerned that a new round of fare increases will further encourage customers to abandon the system.
Evans said it’s painful to increase fares for riders who have already endured so much; months ago, he had even vowed to veto the fare hikes. But he said he is hopeful that the dramatic measures the board is taking now will prepare the region and federal government to move toward finding a dedicated revenue source for the transit agency that would kick in for the subsequent fiscal year.
“We raised fares. We cut service. We downsized staff. We tightened operations,” Evans said. “We did everything they asked of us. Now it’s up to the three jurisdictions and the federal government, in the 2019 budget, to give us more money. Period. There’s nowhere else to go.
“We need a dedicated funding source. There is no other conversation to have.”
And although ridership has dropped dramatically since the start of the SafeTrack maintenance program, Evans said he is optimistic that improvements in on-time performance and reliability will help win back riders, regardless of the price increase.
“I think that this will not have a major impact on ridership,” Evans said. “Ridership will be far more impacted when we get this thing to operate more reliably.”
Board member Christian Dorsey praised the modified budget proposal as the “consensus opinion” of the region.
“These are not the preferred positions of all the various parties, but in terms of forging a consensus, this was what everyone was comfortable with,” he said.
He said that fare hikes are an unavoidable reality but that he hoped by delivering on promised service levels in the coming year, Metro could keep more riders from fleeing the system.
“The whole idea that you would over-promise and under-deliver has far too long been Metro’s unofficial operating mantra,” Dorsey said. “So let’s actually deliver what we say we can.”
Metro also did some behind-the-scenes budget reshuffling, scaling back some of its service reductions by shifting $23 million in rail-car parts needs to the capital budget.
According to board member Michael Goldman, chair of the panel’s finance committee, the breakdown of the freed up funds is as follows: $7 million to restore off-peak rail service, $7 million to meet unanticipated Federal Transit Administration safety-training requirements for rail employees and bus operators, $5.5 million to restore selected bus routes, $2 million for supplemental late-night bus service and $1.5 million to keep the seven-day bus passes priced at $17.50.
Goldman said he expects the amended budget plan to pass largely as proposed. He said Wiedefeld heeded concerns riders expressed at the January hearing and that the amended budget reflects their testimony.
“By the end of the month, we should have an operating budget and a road map to move forward,” he said.