Metro has identified two sources of money that could be used to prevent some of the proposed fare increases and service cuts being considered to close a $290 million shortfall.
It will be up to the agency’s governing board to decide whether, or how, to use those funds.
One option under consideration involves a maneuver the board used last year — and a practice members pledged to curb: using federal grant money earmarked for capital investments to pay for preventive maintenance.
Using the grant money would lessen the amount available for longer-term investments. And federal lawmakers have warned the agency against the practice.
The second source involves $23 million for rail car spare parts — costs that could be pushed to the capital budget, another short-term fix that would still need to be paid for in the long run.
Board members said they’ve recently received approval from the Federal Transit Administration, clarifying that preventive maintenance falls within the bounds of how Metro is allowed to use grant money and that it’s a common practice among federal transit agencies.
The budget for the current fiscal year includes $95 million in grant money for operating expenses; General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, cuts the amount to $60 million.
Some board members say that if the amount is increased to $80 million or $90 million, it would free up enough money to allow them to pare some of the fare increases and service cuts Wiedefeld has proposed.
Board member Malcolm Augustine isn’t entirely comfortable with the practice but said, “We’re in extraordinary times, you know? Maybe this will give Metro a chance to turn the corner and have that growth we’ve been looking for.”
Wiedefeld’s $1.8 billion operating budget includes a host of fare increases and cuts to bus and rail service to help close the looming shortfall. Under his proposal, bus fares would increase 25 cents, to $2 per ride. For rail passengers, the minimum and maximum fares would increase to $2.25 and $6, respectively — up from $2.15 and $5.90. The cost of daily parking also would increase by 10 cents.
Riders would face longer wait times between trains, and a slew of low-ridership bus routes would be eliminated.
The board’s finance committee is expected to decide in March how best to close the $290 million budget shortfall.
One bright spot: the District, Maryland and Virginia all have agreed to give Metro the extra money Wiedefeld asked for in their subsidies to the agency.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said preventing fare increases should be the board’s top priority. That’s also the view of Michael Goldman, chairman of the board’s finance committee. The problem with restoring service cuts, he said, is that it also affects Wiedefeld’s proposal to lay off 500 workers.
But Augustine argues that it’s not that clear-cut. Increasing fares will undoubtedly result in a drop-off in ridership — which potentially could also lead to the need to reduce staffing.
“What I have heard over and over and over again from people is that they have sacrificed a lot,” Augustine said. “We’re going to have to take a look at what we can do to bring this budget into balance. But riders feel like they’ve already sacrificed quite a bit on the service side and on the price side.”
Still, all the talk of preferences is preliminary. Board members say they want more feedback from customers, including the results of a survey that riders have until Monday to complete.
There’s also a possibility Metro might need the money to deal with more immediate problems — like this year’s budget.
Goldman said the board is still waiting for updated ridership and revenue numbers for the current fiscal year. He and others are anxious to see whether Metro’s financial projections for the year are on target — and whether the cost of disruptions related to the agency’s SafeTrack rebuilding program will be more than projected.
In addition, Wiedefeld acknowledged last week that the agency might have lost money during the weekend of the presidential inauguration — despite the fact that the Women’s March on Washington was the agency’s second-highest day of ridership in history. While the agency was lauded for its performance that weekend, all the extra staff, police presence and train service cost money.
“There are definitely funding implications to that, there’s no doubt about it,” Wiedefeld said.
If revenue this year falls short of costs, Goldman said, the agency might be forced to use any money it had hoped to tap to cover next year’s gap, to plug this year’s budget hole.
“We don’t know to what extent SafeTrack work has resulted in a loss of revenue that’s greater than anticipated for this fiscal year, and we don’t know if there’s a big hole that has to be backfilled by the jurisdictions,” Goldman said.
“It’s kind of a lot of moving pieces,” he said.