The year-long effort to restore Metro to a state of good repair has added to the agency’s financial problems, creating a projected $125 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year, the agency said Tuesday.
That, combined with a $290 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year, led General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to declare the agency’s budget woes are “fast approaching” a tipping point.
While the year-long SafeTrack maintenance plan is meant to help improve safety and reliability, its planned service disruptions — combined with continued chronic breakdowns — have caused riders to flee the system. Many say for all the inconveniences of SafeTrack, they’ve yet to see any improvement in reliability.
“Ridership was down broadly across all time periods, days of the week, and individual stations,” Metro said in documents that will be presented to the agency’s board Thursday.
Passenger revenue thus far is $64 million below budget estimates, which had projected a slight increase in ridership this year. Passenger and parking fees had been expected to bring in about $839 million, according to the approved budget.
Wiedefeld said SafeTrack, reliability issues and other factors such as low fuel prices, increased teleworking and competition, have driven riders away at historic rates.
The sharpest declines came in July, when rail trips fell by 21 percent compared with the year before, but October and December saw significant losses as well, with each accounting for a 12 percent decline in rail ridership.
Overall, ridership declined 12 percent during the period from July through December, and rail revenue came in 17 percent below projections, the agency said. SafeTrack has led to about $50 million in revenue losses — $10 million more than was forecast, officials said.
The agency said it will cover the shortfall through a combination of cutting jobs, freezing hiring and spending in non-safety-critical areas, and tapping operating surpluses from prior years. (Despite its recent financial troubles, Metro had operating surpluses in fiscal 2011 through 2013, as it adopted cost-cutting measures and fare increases. Metro has previously tapped the funds to cover rising labor expenses.) In addition, the agency announced last year that it was eliminating 500 positions, and it aims to cut 500 more in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
But in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Wiedefeld said those actions are not a sustainable way to manage the agency’s budget going forward, especially as it looks to fiscal year 2019.
“We cannot be eliminating a thousand jobs a year,” he said. “At some point, there’s nothing left for me to go to, and we’re fast approaching that. . . . I’ve looked under every rock I can to find dollars.”
Metro is weighing a mix of fare hikes and service cuts to balance its $1.8 billion operating budget for the coming fiscal year. Under the spending plan Wiedefeld has proposed, rail fares would increase by a dime, bus fares would increase a quarter, train frequencies would be reduced, and up to three dozen bus routes would be modified or eliminated.
The Metro board chairman, Jack Evans, said the fare increases and service adjustments are all but certain, absent a drastic budget measure — such as steering an unprecedented $100 million in money meant for capital needs to daily operations.
Evans took Wiedefeld’s warning as a clear sign that Metro needs a dedicated funding source — such as a regional sales tax — as the system faces revenue losses and mounting labor and maintenance costs. Wiedefeld himself stopped short of advocating for dedicated funding, saying it was a matter for the board and the region’s policymakers.
“He’s saying, ‘Look, this is it: 2018, the game’s over’; 2018’s our last chance to get this thing done,” Evans said. “. . . If nobody does anything and the jurisdictions don’t give us any more money, the only option I see is to cut back on service enormously.”
Board member Michael Goldman, chairman of the panel’s finance committee, anticipates the Maryland General Assembly will take up the issue of dedicated funding in 2018 — after first approving legislation to create a Metro safety oversight agency this year.
The Federal Transit Administration has overseen rail safety in the system since October 2015 and is withholding millions in funding from the region until the safety commission is up and running.
Calling it the “next order of business,” Goldman, who represents Maryland on the board, said the legislature probably will examine an option to give Montgomery and Prince George’s counties the authority to raise a sales or other form of tax to support Metro.
He expressed hope, however, that riders will return as reliability improves and SafeTrack concludes in June. Metro’s average weekday ridership of 639,000 trips last year was more than 100,000 short of its peak in 2009.
“We need ridership to come back and revenue to come back,” Goldman said. “And hopefully once SafeTrack is completed, which would be by June of this year, and as the 7000[-series] cars come on line replacing the 1000- and 4000-series, the maintenance improves, we should see a more reliable system and operationally improved system. And a less costly system in terms of maintenance.”
Wiedefeld, however, said Metro’s maintenance needs will only increase as the system, parts of which are more than 40 years old, continues to age. One of the primary reasons for SafeTrack is to catch up on track maintenance that was neglected for decades. And while some passengers will return as the system improves, Wiedefeld said, Metro may be facing a “new normal” when it comes to ridership.
Asked if he thought SafeTrack might have done the system more harm than good by accelerating ridership losses and worsening a revenue shortfall, Wiedefeld was insistent that it had not.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “We can never go backward on the safety of the system. We cannot do that.”
Wiedefeld said he does not plan to ask the District, Maryland and Virginia to increase their operating subsidies beyond what Metro has already requested for this and next fiscal year. The three jurisdictions have already agreed to hand over an extra $130 million to support the agency’s operating needs for the coming fiscal year.
Evans, who has generally been supportive of Wiedefeld’s agenda, disagreed with his not seeking more from the jurisdictions.
“He wanted to spread the pain,” Evans said. “So the riders should pay more, the service should be cut, the jurisdictions should pay more. I would have gone to the jurisdictions and said, ‘This is what you should pay.’ ”
Wiedefeld said he has taken what steps he can to get the agency through the next fiscal year.
“The tools I have beyond that are very limited,” he said. “What is new is that we have taken very strong steps to keep our house in order, find every dollar we can in the system to minimize that impact. . . . But at some point that region as a whole has to deal with that larger issue, the systemic financial issue that we’ve been talking about for decades.”