Metro is facing 2003 with six months to resolve a looming budget shortfall that threatens to put the brakes on expansion plans, increase fares and even turn back the clock on services.
Metro has warned that it needs a fare increase to offset $24 million of the projected $48 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2004. Part of the reason for the shortfall is increased security costs and a slowdown in passenger growth.
“We haven’t raised our fares in eight years, and we need a fare increase just to pay the operating costs of the existing bus and rail services. It’s not to improve the system,” Metro General Manager Richard A. White told the Associated Press in a year-end interview. “It’s a Band-Aid to keep us from having to cut our service levels.”
Those cuts could include expanding headway’s on buses and trains, and scaling back late-night hours. Metro’s local bus fare and minimum subway fare is $1.10, which is less than other nearby cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Eight-car trains are still more than a year away. The company manufacturing the new 5000 series rail cars was supposed to deliver 192 rail cars by tomorrow under the renegotiated contract. Metro will end the year with just 100 of the new cars, so the manufacturer, CAF of Madrid, faces financial penalties.
“That will largely be driven by how late the rail cars are,” Mr. White said. “That clock will start ticking Jan. 1.”
Metro expects delivery by midsummer 2003, allowing it to run six-car trains on all lines during rush hours.
Real-time marquees for bus stops are not in the budget for next year. Fairfax and Arlington counties have tested the devices, which would let commuters know exactly when the next bus will arrive, but the local jurisdictions do not have the money this year.
Buses have some technological improvements, however. Metro has spent $20 million to install new fare boxes to accept SmarTrip cards, which have long been in use on the subway. Passengers are expected be able to use the cards in the summer.
Safety is another priority. Video cameras have been installed on 100 buses, and the fleet will also have a new radio system and be equipped with automated vehicle location devices. Other security improvements are planned, including the addition of 12 more chemical sensor devices to rail stations by the summer.
Mr. White said Metro is adding intrusion-detection devices to rail yards.
“All major access vent shafts, emergency doors will be alarmed so we will be alerted to unauthorized access,” he said.
On the unfunded wish list is a backup operations control center. Metro plans to approach the Homeland Security Department with an $85 million request.
Reliable elevators and escalators are a key issue for incoming Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham, a Ward 1 Democrat on the D.C. Council.
Metro has about 800 elevators and escalators, making it the largest vertical transportation operator in the world. But the system has been plagued with problems of late, prompting Metro to form a panel. Some extreme examples: Escalators at two stations broke more than 140 times this year, and two elevators have broken down more than 25 times.
The Metro Board is expected to address recommendations from the panel next month.
Mr. White said the group wants to turn maintenance over to outside contractors.
This violates a union contract and would be more expensive, but Metro would have more freedom to hold the contractor accountable. Mr. White said he is negotiating with the union.
“I’m trying to put some carrots and sticks out there for them,” Mr. White said. “If they can’t do the work, I’m not going to wait for the problems to get worse.”
By this time next year, Mr. White hopes to be asking the federal government to fund the first segment of rail to Washington Dulles International Airport.
The environmental studies are expected to be finished by early summer, allowing for preliminary engineering work.
The project will be broken into segments.
Fairfax County is expected to ask that the first segment be the rail line to connect four stops in Tysons Corner to the Orange Line at West Falls Church.