- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

Metro officials are calling for increases in subway and bus fares next year, even as the transit system prepares to implement a fare increase at the end of the month — its first in eight years.

Metro General Manager Richard A. White said the system faces a $48 million budget deficit next fiscal year, explaining the need for another fare increase.

“All the equations that drive expense, revenue and subsidy are under heavy pressure right now,” Mr. White said.

To close a $48 million deficit in the current fiscal year, transit officials have called for increases that will raise the base fare for rail and bus from $1.10 to $1.20 and the maximum rail fare from $3.25 to $3.60. Daily parking fees also will increase from $2.25 to $3 at most lots.

Metro’s hours of operations on weekends also will be extended. The system will open an hour earlier and close an hour later, operating from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. in the District.

The Metro Board of Directors is expected to approve the proposed changes next week as part of the system’s $898 million budget. The change will take effect June 29. Metro last increased fares in 1995.

In addition to raising fares, Metro cut about 200 jobs to forestall a deficit this year. Mr. White said the transit system might be forced to cut service next year to balance the budget, adding that next year’s fare increase will not be as steep as this year’s.

Mr. White said Metro will consider raising fares every year or two, with the increases coming in “smaller increments.”

During a committee meeting yesterday, board members bemoaned Metro’s financial situation, saying that the public needs to understand what rising operating costs and shrinking revenue will mean for mass-transit users.

Board member Christopher Zimmerman noted 120 new rail cars and 185 new buses that Metro wants, which will cost $796 million altogether but are currently unfunded.

“If we don’t figure out a way to fund those 120 rail cars, then people are going to be standing on platforms waiting for trains,” said Mr. Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County.

Metro’s financial struggles have been exacerbated by harsh weather and terrorism concerns. Winter storms damaged machinery and facilities, requiring more repair work and maintenance than usual, while tourists avoided riding Metro amid heightened terrorist threat levels.

Metro has applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a $1 million reimbursement for snow costs and $500,000 from the Office for Domestic Emergency Preparedness for security costs during the war with Iraq.

Costs for Metro’s health benefits, insurance and paratransit service have risen at higher than normal rates, Mr. White said.

Expansion projects are now at risk, particularly the proposed rail extension to Washington Dulles International Airport.

“I don’t think it’s cooked, but it’s in jeopardy,” Mr. Zimmerman said of the Dulles project.

A commotion arose late in the meeting when Metro officials requested permission to use money from a $7.9 million operating reserve fund to cover a year-end $6.5 million budget shortfall.

Board member Katherine K. Hanley, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said she had never heard of the fund, but said she wished she had known about it when the board was debating fare increases.

Metro officials said they had reviewed the fund in May, but Mrs. Hanley grilled Financial Management Director Burt Bouldry about whether Metro has other reserve funds unknown to the board.

“This is really alarming. We need a full accounting of all funds,” Mrs. Hanley said.

Metro’s chief financial officer, Peter Benjamin, explained that the operating reserve would not have helped during the fare-increase debate.

“A reserve is useful for solving one-time-only problems. But when you’re creating a budget, you have to have things that will be there year after year. That’s what a fare change is,” he said.

The committee postponed a decision on how to cover the deficit and asked for a description of other reserves.

Mr. Benjamin said the operating reserve is the only one of its kind, and that a full accounting of other reserve funds, for issues such as liability and workmen’s compensation, would take a week or two to compile.

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