- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

UPDATED:

Metro staff Thursday proposed cutting multiple bus routes as well as reducing the frequency of bus and rail service on nights and weekends to close a record budget gap.

The recommendations upset several members of the Metro Board of Directors, which is expected to vote on them next month.

“This is exactly how public transportation declined in America for half a century,” said Christopher Zimmerman, a representative of Virginia. “I mean you take a little bit by little bit, and gradually people say: what am I doing this for and they drive,” he said.

The proposal comes as transit agencies across the country are slashing services and employment because of the failing economy.

“None of these cuts should take place if we had the finances. If the economy was not in the condition that it is today, we would not be doing this,” Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told the board Thursday.

At least a dozen bus routes that involve at least two buses, dubbed “duplicate bus services,” are on the chopping block.

The recommendations also include extending the wait times between buses and trains for weekends and non-peak hours, as well as closing some station entrances that see less than 1,000 patrons per day.

Metro faces a $154 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2010, the largest in the agency’s history, even though ridership increased 3 percent last year compared with 2007. Fares, as they do in most of the nation’s transit systems, only make up a portion of Metro’s revenue, so the record recent ridership does not close the system’s funding gap.

Mr. Catoe says $81 million will be made up in mostly administrative cuts, including the reduction of more than 300 jobs. Other options include increasing bus passenger revenue by $5 million through eliminating paper transfers, as well as increasing federal funding by $10 million to a total of $30.7 million for fiscal 2010.

The proposals do not take into account about $230 million that will be allocated to Metro from the federal economic stimulus package.

Mr. Catoe explained that the stimulus is a temporary measure, and any adjustments in the budget that are made will have to continue well after the stimulus money has been spent.

“[The federal stimulus package] is a one-time fix, so we did not even look at that in the equation itself,” he said.

As state and local tax revenues decrease, so do transit agency budgets. St. Louis announced it would be cutting its bus services by half this year, and Washington state’s transit agency is preparing to eliminate up to 900 jobs.

Board Chairman Jim Graham, who also represents Ward 1 as a Democrat on the D.C. Council, said that while Metro faces a “major challenge,” it should look at other options to generate revenue, such advertising or retail shops at Metro stations, or by imposing parking fees on weekends.

“We need to expand the menu of options here. I really believe that there are other things that we can do to minimize any service reductions,” said Mr. Graham.

Peter Benjamin, vice chairman of the board, said that while the cuts have been discussed, nothing has been agreed upon.

“None of us want to do anything to reduce service,” said Mr. Benjamin. “We have proposals before us that none of us have signed on to and all of us are very concerned with.”

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