Metro Budget Raises Concerns

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s proposed 2018 fiscal budget plan has raised concerns that its measures will result in increased fares, further affecting Metro’s ridership.

Presented to the Metro Board of Directors by General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld on Oct. 30, the proposal calls for the downsizing of 1,000 positions — an unprecedented measure — as well as the fare hikes, cuts to certain employee healthcare expenses, slashes to services in low-ridership routes and increased subsidies from the Metro’s service areas. All these measures are in an attempt to offset an anticipated $290 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2017.

The $1.8 billion operating budget will require final approval by the board of directors in March; however, a series of public hearings and community outreach efforts will begin in late January.

Wiedefeld said that the budget reflects the harsh realities WMATA will need to confront if it intends to fund safety improvements, improve track quality and scale services to better match demand. Currently, the Metro rail system is undergoing the largest overhaul in its 40-year history through its maintenance plan SafeTrack, which shutters parts of the track weeks at a time in phases called “surges.”

Under the proposed budget, the rising fares would lift the rail boarding charge by 10 cents during peak hours and increase one-way local and express bus fares by 25 cents. However, the higher fares are expected to generate $21 million dollars more annually. Service cuts are expected to generate another $50 million from riders to balance the budget.

In WMATA’s Oct. 30 press release, it cited statistics that predict that ridership is down more than 20 percent from its 2009 levels.

WMATA Board of Directors Member Malcom Augustine acknowledged that the fiscal proposal’s plan to increase fares may exacerbate the downward trend in ridership, but said it is necessary due to the current low levels of riders.

“I think that there will be an impact on ridership. With that said, there has already been declining ridership over the past few years, which is part of the reason we’re in the situation that we’re in,” Augustine said.

In addition to personnel cuts, rail service will experience increased wait times as trains run every eight minutes in peak period compared to the current six minute waits.

Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Chairman of the Metro Board of Directors, expressed opposition to increasing fares and transferring money from the capital budget to the operating budget. He instead advocated for increased jurisdictional subsidies.

Evans’ Director of Communications Thomas Lipinsky said the councilmember fears increased fares might have adverse effects on the region’s economic development.

“There’s been a pretty significant drop in ridership over last three months,” Lipinksky said. “The goal is just not to increase fares to a point that it dips further. The majority of development in the region, both commercial and residential, is around Metro systems.”

Subsidies from jurisdictions would increase by $47 million from the District, $44 million from Maryland and $39 million from Virginia. The Metro Board of Directors, which ultimately must approve the budget, includes members from local governments.

Eno Center for Transportation Senior Fellow Jeff Davis estimated that $100 million dollars of $290 million shortfall are due to declining revenue and ridership, while another $100 million stem from the fact that temporary federal funding will expire at the end of fiscal year 2018. A further $90 million shortfall can be attributed to increased expenses.

Davis said that he is skeptical that the proposed budget will improve long-term conditions and effect long-term change. He said he hopes the involved parties devise a new plan for Metro, which takes into account the 2018 expiration of the federal subsidy to the service.

“A lot of this is just killing time until they can have the next great, big crisis that happens every 10 or 15 years,” Davis said. “Congress and the locals have to sit down and come up with some new plan for Metro and the impetus for that will probably be the expiration of the last ten-year funding plan in 2018.”

Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said increasing fares would mean bus commuters would have to pay an additional $10 a month for transportation while Metro riders would pay an additional $4 per month.

However, Hanson stressed that the recent increase in minimum wage from $8.25 in 2014 to the current $11.50 level provides an additional $500 per month in income, which will help absorb the shock of increased transportation costs.

“In the long run, decreased Metro ridership in favor of driving, ridesharing services like Uber, biking and walking, will lead to increased fares in the absence of additional direct subsidies from federal, state and local governments,” Hanson wrote in an email to The Hoya.

Augustine stressed that WMATA finds itself in a difficult situation with its proposed budget because whatever choice the organization ultimately makes will face some level of opposition.

“No one is going to be particularly happy with this,” Augustine said. “We’re in a really rough situation and it’s going to be hard for everybody.”

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