- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Metro officials yesterday proposed a yearly operating budget of more than $1 billion for the first time but did not include fare increases for a third straight year.

The agency’s budget committee announced the plan, which covers fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2007, during its regular meeting and will review it until June.

The agency’s board of directors will then make final recommendations and take a vote. The budget takes effect July 1.

To avoid fare increases like those imposed for the past two years, the District and the Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions served by Metro will absorb the $41.7 million shortfall in agency’s proposed $1 billion operating budget for fiscal 2006 and the $31.1 million projected shortfall for fiscal 2007.

Richard A. White, Metro’s chief executive officer, said a $1 billion budget will help the agency provide a “baseline of service” for the fourth-largest transit system in the country.

He said the money also will help expand services and programs, improve safety and service reliability and the cleanliness of stations and trains.

“All within approved budget subsidy guidance levels and … without a fare increase,” he said.

Most budget committee members commended Mr. White and his staff for the proposal.

“I am pleased that no commitment was made to burden riders for a third straight year,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat. “As one board member who voted against the fare increase last time, the fact that it’s off the table is very important to me. I think [the proposal] is a solid, positive step forward.”

Metro raised fares in June 2003 for the first time since 1995. Then the board of directors voted on June 27 to increase fares and parking rates to close a $23.4 million shortfall in the fiscal 2005 budget.

Mr. Graham and Arlington County Board member Christopher Zimmerman were the dissenters.

Board member William D. Euille, mayor of Alexandria, yesterday backed the idea of a two-year budget but said jurisdictions “need to know now” whether they must pay more.

Officials said the increasing costs of employee pensions, health insurance, fuel and electricity also contributed to the record budget.

Included in the budget proposal is a recommendation for $1.7 million in maintenance upgrades, which includes doubling the staff assigned to clean rail cars at the ends of major lines and adding 10 cleaners to frequently clean high-volume stations.

“Our stations are not clean,” said board member Dana Kauffman, a Democrat who also serves on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “We talk about improvements that are invisible to the customer.”

Officials recommend pumping $1.3 million into improving the agency’s customer service, which has been heavily scrutinized as of late. The proposal calls for adding 16 positions to provide more efficient customer service and to address increased customer complaints. The new hires would help the agency improve responses to letters and phone calls, officials said.

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