The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Smooth sailing for Metro, for now, as storm clouds gather

Commuters are seen riding the train at McPherson Square Metro Station in D.C. in March 2016. (Ricky Carioti/ The Washington Post)
5 min

With some deft budgetary corner-cutting, the Washington area’s transit system has fashioned a plan for the coming year that improves service while imposing modest subway fare increases — along with a simplified price structure. That’s the good news. The bad news is that smooth sailing is unlikely to last, and a storm — sharply reduced service coupled with much higher prices for passengers — is approaching fast.

The region’s leaders have options, albeit limited ones, to address Metro’s coming crisis. Simply put, they will need more funding. Yet there is little evidence they are acting. And in the District of Columbia, local elected officials are adding an additional budgetary burden by voting to make Metrobuses free.

It’s time for new thinking. Metro’s general manager, Randy Clarke, acknowledged as much this fall. “After this year is over, we are going to have to come to a realization as a region that there will not be a lot of tools in our toolbox” to close projected budget deficits, he told board members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional group. “As a region, we’ll have to solve the longer-term question. But I think the first piece is us gaining trust and credibility.”

Mr. Clarke’s diagnosis and prescription are spot-on, as is his focus on beefing up the presence of transit police throughout the system amid a burst of violent incidents on the subway. His proposed $2.3 billion operating budget for the fiscal year starting in July is balanced. Once it kicks in, riders will notice more frequent trains, especially in downtown stations — assuming Metro’s most modern subway cars, sidelined for a year with safety problems, return to service over the coming months. The subway fare hikes in his blueprint, the first in five years, average just 5 percent.

In fact, Mr. Clarke’s balanced budget is a gift bequeathed by the $561 million balance that remains from $2.4 billion in federal pandemic relief funds. Of that sum, he proposed diverting $139 million earmarked for long-term construction and other capital projects to short-term preventive maintenance — a move required to keep the trains and buses running. The federal funds plugged most of the $185 million gap in Metro’s operating budget.

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The more distant horizon presents a much gloomier picture. Beginning 19 months from now, when pandemic funds will have run dry, Metro’s projected deficits are daunting — $527 million for the fiscal year starting in July 2024, rising to $731 million four years later. That’s a staggering share of overall operating costs that defies any budgetary sleight of hand.

In the transit business, there are just two main options to achieve fiscal balance: cutting service and raising fares. Service cuts mean wait times for Green and Yellow line trains — now 12 minutes, which Mr. Clarke hopes to halve in the coming year — could spike so much that many passengers may opt to drive. Raising fares in consecutive years would likely have the same effect. Those would be bad outcomes for a region whose roads are already clogged.

Transit is part of the region’s lifeblood. Elected officials in Congress and locally have grasped that for years, and repeatedly found ways to boost Metro’s subsidy, without which passenger fares and other revenue sources would be insufficient to keep the network afloat. It’s time they do so again, in a coordinated regional push for dedicated funds in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Yet no urgency is in evidence. In the District, a unanimous council voted this week to grant tens of millions more dollars in funding to Metro — but not to address the looming deficits. Rather, the city will pay more than $40 million starting in July next year, and very likely more in the coming years, to make Metrobuses free for any passenger who boards in the District. That’s the wrong solution for Metro’s problems.

Members of the D.C. Council defied Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who opposed the new policy. They said that getting rid of fares on buses would also make them faster, by eliminating wait times for onboard payment, and would encourage more transit use. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the bill’s sponsor, argued that transit is a “public good,” akin to sidewalks or libraries, and that a majority of bus riders earn less than $50,000 a year.

It’s true that most bus passengers have incomes below that threshold, but the council’s one-size-fits-all bill will also grant free trips to riders who can easily afford to pay a fare. And, unlike sidewalks and libraries, space on Metrobuses is far more limited, often uncomfortably so. Moreover, in abandoning the principle that the cost of transit should be borne first by those who use it, the council also bowed to business interests, including restaurants. They hope free bus rides will juice their bottom lines.

Metro is critical to the region’s economic health. The right way to safeguard its future is not by eliminating fares but by ensuring it has the financial wherewithal to provide safe, reliable and convenient service for the long term.

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