- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

Metro board members yesterday endorsed continuation of free rides for the 10,000 employees and retirees of the cash-strapped transit system, a perk which Metro officials said costs only $675,000 a year.

Board members said they are in favor of the free rides for Metro’s 10,018 employees and 1,660 retirees, as a way of compensating employees, ensuring good service, and encouraging environment-friendly travel. Some current and former board members also get free Metro rides.

Meanwhile, riders can look forward to new, higher rates for rail, bus and parking on Sunday as passed by Metro to help alleviate a $48 million budget deficit for fiscal 2004. Metro expects to face another budget shortfall next year of around $50 million.

The Washington Times first reported about the free rides for Metro employees and retirees on Tuesday. According to calculations by The Times, if each of Metro’s employees rides the rail daily for minimum fare the perk costs Metro around $6 million, or $18 million a year for each employee who rides every day for maximum fare.

Metro initially said it could not estimate how much the free rides cost, but yesterday said the perk costs it $675,000 a year. Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said only about 1,500 of Metro’s employees ride rail to work each day because many of them start work before the system opens or go home after it closes.

Board member David A. Catania, an at-large Republican on the D.C. Council, said if Metro were to remove the perk, they would have to raise employee salaries. “I really don’t object to a free pass,” he said.

Dana Kaufman, board member and Fairfax County supervisor, said having employees ride the system helps them do their jobs better.

“Folks get to see how service is working or not working. It does have value,” he said.

Fellow board member Christopher Zimmerman, who is also an Arlington County Board member, agreed.

“You want the people who run the system to be using the system,” said Mr. Zimmerman, an outspoken proponent of mass transit rather than automobile use because of the effect of emissions on the atmosphere. He also wants all companies to encourage their employees to use mass transit instead of automobiles. The free passes do that, he said.

Metro board Chairman Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat on the D.C. Council, has expressed concern about the cost of the free passes. He told the Times he would take up the matter with Metro General Manager Richard A. White.

“In tight budget times, when we’re facing cuts in services, this ought to be reviewed with everything else,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. White said yesterday if Mr. Graham wanted to discuss the free passes, “We’re happy to do that.”

Part of Metro’s budget problems have come from drops in rail ridership, decreased tourism because of terrorism fears, and as a result of a severe winter. This month, however, Metro has experienced an extraordinary spike in ridership levels.

Wednesday’s ridership of 726,789 was the third-highest in Metro’s 27-year history, marking the fourth day in June when Metro ridership topped 700,000. The only ridership days to eclipse that figure were March 10, 1995, when there were 804,146 riders the day of the Million Man March, and Jan. 20, 1993, when there were 811,257 passengers on the day of President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.

Average rail ridership on a weekday is between 650,000 and 670,000.

Wednesday also marked the eighth day of June to rank in the top 30 ridership days of all time. Officials said no significant event occurred on any of the eight record days to cause increased ridership.

“It’s extraordinary to see a number that large without an event attached,” said Mr. White, who added that arrival of warm weather and release of students from school may be contributing factors.

Mrs. Farbstein also said tourists’ fears of terrorism may have eased.

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