- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Judging from packed buses and trains, these would appear to be prosperous times for the nation’s transit systems, which have seen record ridership since last summer’s high gas prices.

But with the economy deteriorating, the problem is no longer how to handle more riders. Instead, agencies are facing substantial service cuts, fare hikes and layoffs, which could chase passengers away.

Metro, which serves the D.C. area and is the nation’s second-busiest transit system, is preparing to slash nearly 900 jobs and considering service cuts. Some subway lines in New York, the busiest system, could be eliminated in the coming months. St. Louis is cutting bus service by nearly half.

As service dwindles, customers who rely on public transit might not be able to get to work, and higher fares could leave them with even less income in a weak economy. Layoffs of bus and train operators, mechanics and administrative staff would add to the ranks of the unemployed.

“People are clamoring to use public transportation, and we have to say, ‘Not only are the trains and buses full, but we have to reduce service,’” said Joe Calabrese, chief executive of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, which has eliminated some routes despite raising fares twice last year.

“It makes no logical sense, but it’s a necessity,” he said.

Metro is facing a budget gap of $154 million - the largest in the agency’s 33-year history. To help, officials have suggested eliminating 891 positions, about half of which are vacant.

But the threat of service cuts lingers. An independent committee of regional transportation officials has come up with possible cuts that include closing the subway system a couple of hours earlier at 10 p.m., which could have a ripple effect on the city’s economy, especially on restaurants and bars.

Metro officials insist such drastic measures can be avoided, yet board member Chris Zimmerman acknowledged Thursday that the economic realities have Metro considering “devastating changes.”

Meanwhile, some passengers are getting fed up.

Candy Artis, who rides the subway to class at the University of the District of Columbia, said service has gotten worse since fares increased last year. She said it’s unfair to burden riders further with another rate increase or service cuts, particularly in this economy.

Besides, she questions where her money is going, noting frequent delays and broken escalators.

“It’s the worst shape I’ve seen it,” she said.

Transit agencies first saw fuel costs surge over the past year, straining already tight budgets. Gaining more fare-paying riders helped, but that revenue generally only covers a fraction of operating costs. The rest comes from state and local governments, which have less tax revenue because of the struggling economy.

The economic stimulus bill won’t provide much help. While $8.4 billion is set aside for investments in public transportation, the money is devoted to projects such as building new stations and purchasing new trains that should quickly create jobs - not expenses to keep systems running.

The irony isn’t lost on transit officials. “The logic seems to be ‘I’m helping you build things that you don’t have the money to operate,’ ” said Diane Williams, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Metro system, where the cuts are especially drastic.

Bus service in and around St. Louis will be slashed by 44 percent, and light-rail service will be cut by more than a third by the end of March. More than 550 jobs, or about a quarter of the transit system’s work force, also are being cut.

The agency had no other choice after voters in November narrowly rejected a transit sales tax to help pay for service, Ms. Williams said.

Many riders could be left standing at the curb.

Among them is William Jenkins, who can’t drive because of cerebral palsy. To get to his job 13 miles from his home in Manchester, Mo., he relies on Call-A-Ride, which provides service for those with disabilities. But on March 30, that service will no longer exist in the suburb west of St. Louis.

“We will have no public transportation, period,” said his mother, Bren Pathenos. “It’s despicable.”

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