Metro board member Malcolm Augustine was defiant in a board meeting Thursday morning after staff members gave a presentation on the transit agency’s financial woes.
Committee Chairman Michael Goldman moved to accept Metro’s projection of a $275 million budget shortfall, so board members could consider possible strategies to address the gap.
But Augustine, who represents Prince George’s County, was not satisfied with that course of action.
“I don’t think that we should make that assumption at all,” he said. “I definitely would like to hear from Mr. Wiedefeld. Because this is showing a downward spiral of sorts. Where is the light? Where is the light? Is the light coming? If it’s not, then we need to be having a very different conversation.”
The shortfall, about 20 percent of which is result of ridership declines, has Metro considering a bevy of unsavory options to balance its budget: fare hikes, service cuts, staff reductions.
Metro says rail ridership is down 9 to 10 percent from previous years. Rail revenue is expected to be $60 million lower than projected for fiscal 2018.
“And frankly, it could be worse than that,” said Dennis Anisoke, Metro’s chief financial officer.
Responding to Augustine, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld had a simple answer: “The ridership issue, that’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
He said when Metro can provide consistently safe, reliable service, riders will return.
“A big answer to that is the 7000-series,” he said, referring to the new trains that are replacing much of Metro’s aging fleet.
But Augustine wasn’t satisfied that Metro was doing enough to reverse the trend.
“You tell me, when does the trend stop going like this … based on all the work that you’re doing to turn the ship around?” he asked.
Wiedefeld couldn’t say.
“What we control is what we have to focus on,” he said. “What we can control is the reliability of the cars. And we will control the reliability of the track. And that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Augustine chimed in again: Is Metro expecting a further decrease in ridership for the 2018 calendar year?
Yes, Wiedefeld responded.
“When will the turn happen?” he asked.
“I can’t [say],” Wiedefeld said.
A previous version of this post said Metro’s budget shortfall is “largely” a result of ridership declines. In fact, ridership revenue constitutes about 20 percent of the shortfall. This post has been updated.