- The Washington Times - Friday, November 9, 2001

Metro officials are considering higher fares, budget cuts and a hiring freeze to close a projected $20 million shortfall as ridership has fallen off in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax scares.
"You're not going to find $20 million without cutting services or raising fares," General Manager Richard A. White said yesterday. "There is not that kind of fat in the budget."
Fares have not been raised since 1995. That year, Metro's board of directors promised not to raise fares through June 30, 2002, in an effort to spur slumping ridership.
Weekday rush-hour fares on Metrorail currently range from $1.10 to $3.25, based on the length of the trip. Metrobus fares are $1.10 for regular routes and $2 for express routes.
"You can't go forever without a fare increase," Mr. White said.
Fare increases would not go into effect until July 1, 2003, at the earliest, said Metro officials, who did not speculate on how much the increases might be.
Metro Director of Finance Management Burt Bouldry briefed Metro's board on the grim news yesterday. He said an optimistic forecast shows Metro losing $15 million in fiscal 2002.
But the news might get worse: One transit agency source said the shortfall could stretch to as much as $30 million because subway ridership could decline even further in November and December, which historically have low ridership figures.
Metro averages 600,000 riders on the subway system each weekday.
Rick Harcum, an analyst in Metro's finance management department, said officials hoped ridership would pick back up to normal levels after the September 11 attacks, and it did briefly in September.
But when the wave of anthrax attacks hit the District last month, any hope for a recovery in midday, late evening and weekend ridership evaporated, said Mr. Harcum.
"September 11 was just like a light switch. It just slowed things down all together," he said, referring to the region's economy.
The transit agency posted a $2.6 million loss in October, said Mr. Bouldry.
The subway system accounted for a $1.9 million loss, due mostly to a 6 percent decline in weekday ridership and a 9 percent drop in weekend/holiday ridership; bus operations lost $700,000. The decline in ridership, Mr. Bouldry said, was the result of a softening economy, and the September 11 and anthrax attacks.
Mr. White said he is not counting on federal sources of revenue for a bailout. And he is not optimistic that Virginia, Maryland and the District who are part of a compact that contributed $387 million in subsidies to its $823 million fiscal 2002 operating budget will be able to help out either. More than $436 million in revenue from its bus and rail service goes to the operating budget, which includes payments on Metro's debt.
"I'm a realist," said Mr. White. "It's a very tough time to be calling on state and local governments to increase their support."
One senior Metro official said he "had been asked to find 5 percent to "sacrifice" if needed.
Another Metro source said budget cuts could range from 3 percent to 5 percent, or $24.7 million to $41.1 million, even though that is far more than what is projected to be cut from the year 2002 budget.
Metro budget chief Peter Benjamin said any shortfall in Metro's $1.97 billion budget for 2002 will likely spill over into the 2003 budget, with forecasters having to assume lower ridership and revenue during the next two years.
Mr. Benjamin and Mr. White said they expect to present to Metro's board proposals on how to make up the shortfall in December. A proposed fiscal 2003 budget will also be up for discussion.
Mr. Harcum said that former Clinton budget director Alice M. Rivlin and George Mason University economics professor Stephen S. Fuller, among others, will participate in a Nov. 30 workshop Metro is holding to get a broader perspective on the region's economy and how the transit agency will be affected.
Mr. Benjamin cautioned there are not "strong, encouraging signals" that the roughly 20 million tourists who visit the District annually will be using the subway system as much as they have in years past.
"It doesn't look like the ridership will suddenly jump back up," he said.
Some senior transit officials from Virginia and Maryland localities said Metro has enough room in its budget to make cuts without cutting services or even raising fares. One official from Maryland said hefty pay raises given last year to senior managers show the transit agency "has too much fat in its budget."
Another official questioned a weekend promotion to encourage suburbanites to visit the District Oct. 13 and 14 by allowing passengers to ride free, which cost Metro $600,000.
Len N. Foxwell, director of the Maryland Transit Administration's Washington Area Transit Programs, said Metro is just the latest victim of the souring economy.
"It's not 1999 anymore, the party's over," said Mr. Foxwell. Still, he said despite the economic downturn, "service cuts are totally unacceptable no ifs, ands or buts."


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