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‘One-train ride from Greenbelt to National Airport’: Metro board advances service increases on Yellow, Red lines as part of budget

Metro’s budget is to be voted on by the agency’s full board on March 28. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Metro will increase service on the Yellow and Red lines next year, doubling the number of trains at a dozen stations in hopes of boosting ridership as the system continues to undergo substantial rebuilding and truncated hours to address a backlog of deferred maintenance.

The service changes were included in the agency’s $3.5 billion 2020 budget, which received preliminary board approval Thursday. The proposal would extend the Yellow Line to Greenbelt and run all Red Line trains between Shady Grove and Glenmont — eliminating turnbacks at Silver Spring.

The measures restore a portion of the service discontinued when Metro adopted its austerity budget in 2017, and the budget includes a $150 million federal grant that agency officials believed was at risk under the Trump administration and a split Congress.

“There’s no fare increase. There’s no service cuts,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiede­feld said. “That’s pretty big.”

Wiedefeld said the budget represents a balance between Metro’s improved productivity and the need to restore service. “You have that base, and then we’re getting the two [line] extensions, which are pretty important,” he said.

Metro to help pay for Uber, Lyft or taxi ride for late-night workers

The budget was approved by the board’s finance committee unanimously Thursday and will be up for a final vote of the full board on March 28.

But perhaps as notable as the initiatives included in the budget were those that were omitted. The District had pushed for the restoration of closings at midnight on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends but relented on its threat to veto another year of shorter hours after the Federal Transit Administration warned that more than $1 billion in federal funding for the region would be at risk if that happened. The Maryland and Virginia representatives agreed with the FTA and Metro that the earlier closings needed to be maintained to provide workers more time for maintenance.

Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said that he cast a “very, very, very” difficult vote to maintain the current schedule, but said it was in the best interest of the system, despite the jurisdictional squabbling. The overall budget, he said, reflected the spirit of compromise.

“For today,” Evans said to board finance chairman Christian Dorsey, who represents Virginia, “good job. Because sometimes in the short term you gotta get where you’re trying to go, and I believe we have gotten there.”

A flat $2 weekend fare advocated by the District and Wiede­feld was kept out of the budget, as were initiatives to expand rush-hour windows by two hours and run all eight-car trains. Meanwhile, advocates for bus service to parallel the rail routes to help late-night workers were likely to be disappointed after Metro announced it would instead subsidize Uber, Lyft or taxi rides for those workers under a $1 million pilot program.

Wiedefeld said the agency was limited by the 3 percent cap in the amount the subsidies from local jurisdictions could grow. The cap was imposed as part of the new dedicated funding law that provides the agency with $500 million a year.

Metro plan would subsidize Uber and Lyft fares to fill late-night service gap

“Going forward, these are things we want to do,” Wiedefeld said of the other service in­creases. “We also have the practicality of the finances. So it was a different year because of the new rules we’re living under. But I think definitely [we’re] moving in the right direction.”

Board member Michael Goldman called it a “very good down payment” on the changes Metro riders want to see.

“It’s going to be a one-ride train from Greenbelt to Reagan Airport,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland.

The budget discussion concluded a debate, Dorsey said, in which no one got everything they wanted — likely “indicative of a fair budget.”

Metro budget proposal includes more service to win back riders

Metro’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is divided between $2 billion in operating expenses and $1.5 billion in capital funding. Local jurisdictions will foot about $1.1 billion of the operating costs, with the remainder covered by fares and other revenue sources. Metro’s estimated 35 percent farebox recovery ratio, however, raised concerns from fiscal-minded board members such as Goldman, who previously chaired the finance committee.

He said Metro should aim to recover more of its spending through the farebox or it will face fare increases in the coming years. That prompted a testy exchange between Goldman and frequent rival Corbett A. Price, who represents the District.

“Are you saying that Maryland wants to see a fare increase?” Price asked Goldman.

“I think we need a robust discussion of revenue and how we increase revenue,” Goldman replied.

Given the nature of the budget discussions, Evans waxed philosophical on the role of transit — on a board where there is disagreement about whether the agency should operate like a business or a public utility.

“What are we?” Evans asked. “Are we a business? Are we a commuter system that gets people into the city and takes them home at night? Are we a weekend system?”

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Evans’s position was clear: “If it were up to me and I were king, I would say we should have a flat fare for a dollar,” he said. “It should be available and we should run as much as we can because it’s going to be critical for the future of this region . . . as we add hundreds of thousands of people over the years.”

(Evans declined to respond to questions about the Metro board’s ethics probe into reports of his offers to potential employers to use political connections and influence on behalf of their clients. Evans, who is also the longest-serving D.C. Council member, is facing a federal investigation into his business dealings.)

Metro said it intends to cover the cost of the additional service through internal cost savings and by applying exemptions to the fiscal cap imposed by the region.

The benefits of the service increases represent a trade-off for the agency. Extending the Yellow Line to Greenbelt, for example, will cost an estimated $8.2 million but is expected to be offset by 1.7 million new annual trips, resulting in about $3.2 million total in new spending, the agency said. The Red Line extension will create about 600,000 new trips at an initial cost of $3.1 million; the fare revenue would bring the total cost of the initiative to just over $1 million.

Metro says it doesn’t know what to do about falling ridership. An internal report lays out exactly what to do.

Metro plans to exempt more than $12 million in spending on litigation, federally required paratransit service, occupational safety requirements and new bus service requested by Falls Church, Va., from the subsidy cap under the constraints laid out by the jurisdictions. The agency said it was charged with finding just under $50 million in total cost savings to avoid exceeding the cap, which would trigger financial penalties.

Board member Clarence Crawford, who represents Maryland, praised the budget agreement but also had a stern warning for the board.

“I’m comfortable with the idea of fiscal constraints,” he said. “I’m just concerned about the long-term effects of 3 percent increases. . . . It reduces the spending power of [Metro] and could potentially put us in a bad situation in a few years.”