After months of chronically balky rail service, including several crippling breakdowns, Metro’s financial managers have begun drafting a new budget that could cause further pain for commuters in the form of fare hikes, officials said Thursday.
The idea of raising prices — a prospect almost certain to rile many of Metro’s already disgruntled riders — isn’t a concrete proposal yet. The transit agency’s next budget, for the fiscal year that begins in July 2016, won’t be ready until November. But the possibility is percolating.
“There’s no desire to raise fares or adjust service,” Jack Requa, Metro’s interim general manager, told reporters as members of Metro’s governing board gathered for committee meetings on financial issues and other matters. In Metro-speak, “adjust service” means to cut expenses by reducing the frequency of trains — also not a crowd-pleaser.
“But for the last number of years, every other year, we’ve had a fare adjustment,” Requa said. “And we’ll certainly be looking at it again this year.”
The board’s policy is to not increase prices two years in a row. For the budget period that ended this June, there was a 3 percent fare hike, raising the cost of the typical subway ride to $3. As for the current fiscal year — after much debate over how to fill the gap between rising expenses and flat revenue because of stagnant ridership — the board opted to stick to its policy and not raise fares.
So for the next budget, fare increases are on the table, although “we’ll look at every other alternative before we bring that forward,” Requa said.
Huge portions of Metro’s budget are funded by operating revenue and by contributions from Washington-area jurisdictions served by the transit system. The overall spending plan for the current fiscal year totals $3 billion, including $1.8 billion for day-to-day operations.
Amid several major service disruptions in recent months and revelations about Metro’s safety and infrastructure problems — underscored by a Jan. 12 calamity in which smoke filled a subway tunnel, killing one rider and sickening scores of others — the jurisdictions have balked at increasing their subsidies. Meanwhile, as expenses continue to climb, rail ridership, after years of steady increases, has stagnated or declined.
Metro’s chief financial officer, Dennis Anosike, told the board’s finance committee Thursday that the gap between costs and revenue is projected to keep widening over the next decade — putting more pressure on fare-payers and jurisdictions — unless the transit agency begins attracting more riders.
That means that Metro would need to improve its performance. On that score, the agency’s most recent quarterly report card, called a “Vital Signs” report, doesn’t offer much encouragement. The report for April, May and June, presented to the board’s customer service committee Thursday, angered some board members.
“Rail on-time performance was significantly worse” in those three months than it was during the second quarter last year, Metro’s chief performance officer, Andrea Burnside, told the committee. With a lot of subway cars stuck in rail yards because of mechanical trouble, she said, trains were too often late and stuffed with passengers.
Based on surveys, she said, “rail customer satisfaction declined to 73 percent as customers waited longer for trains that were more crowded.” Some board members seemed skeptical, thinking the rate probably is much less than 73 percent.
Deputy General Manager Rob Troup blamed the problem of disabled rail cars largely on a shortage of spare parts. He said Metro has gone through an unusually difficult period of negotiations with companies that supply rail-car components.
Board member Leif A. Dormsjo suggested that a poor work ethic on the part of some rail-car maintenance employees might be partly to blame. “This is probably the worst Vital Signs report that we’ve seen,” he said to Troup, which led to an odd and testy exchange.
“Is it acceptable,” Dormsjo asked, “that the mechanics set up a cornhole game on the shop floor during their breaks?”
“Set up a what?” someone blurted.
Cornhole involves tossing beanbags. “This is a game that you would play at a beach or a backyard party event,” explained Dormsjo, who also is director of the D.C. Department of Transportation. At a maintenance shop, “I’ve witnessed them playing cornhole in the middle of the workday.”
Evidently, Troup had heard this complaint from Dormsjo before and had contacted the shop in question. “I called at that time to understand what that actually was,” Troup replied. “They were on their lunch break. I want you to understand that.”
Dormsjo said: “I’m concerned that we’re having serious issues with the maintenance of our vehicles, and the staff are playing a game. It’s enjoyable, and I play it myself when I’m on leave or at the beach or at a family barbecue. But that seemed to be set up right on the shop floor. I wonder if that might be a concern for management.”
Troup said, “I don’t think it’s a systemic issue that we have a problem with.” And Requa added, “We’re getting the eight hours’ work.”