- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2003

WASHINGTON — The Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority struggled this year through delays and shutdowns caused by a major snowstorm and a hurricane, but its big challenge in coming months likely will be growing financial troubles.

“It was a year of money challenges and a year heavily influenced by Mother Nature,” the agency’s general manager, Richard A. White, said of 2003. “The money challenges … haven’t gone away.”

Even with about $30 million in proposed in-house cuts, the agency’s board of directors must close an estimated $29 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2005.

Mr. White said the board has three options: raise fares after July 1, cut service, or increase the amounts that D.C., Virginia and Maryland suburbs contribute to the agency.

Metro increased fares this year for the first time in eight years to help close a budget gap. Parking fees rose, and riders are paying 10 cents more for base fares.

Mr. White said riders who use MetroAccess, the federally mandated curb-to-curb transportation service for the disabled, likely would see fare and service changes.

“This is a huge problem for us,” Mr. White said. “We have three-tenths of 1 percent of our customers driving 4 percent of our expense and driving 9 percent of our subsidy. I mean something has to give here.”

A task force plans to make recommendations in the spring for controlling the costs of the service, which has grown 40 percent in the past year.

Mr. White said he favors increasing the flat $2.40 fare and shortening the distance that agency vehicles travel to ferry passengers.

Even after the agency balances its operating spending plan, it has a bigger gap to close in its capital budget. Agency officials have said they need $1.5 billion in funding in the next six years. They say that money would help buy new rail cars and buses, and pay for eight-car trains and maintenance on the 27-year-old system.

Mr. White said the agency will know in 12 to 24 months whether Congress, Maryland, Virginia or the District will provide the funding.

“We’re either going to be successful or not successful in convincing people that the clock is ticking and is about ready to expire, and if it does, bad things are going to happen to the Metro system,” Mr. White said.

He said that without the money, trains won’t be able to meet ridership demands in a couple of years, even as calls increase for increasing service. Passengers will notice dirty stations, leaking tunnels and frequent train and bus breakdowns, he said.

Mr. White said passengers will see limited eight-car train service by mid- to late 2005.

Some riders also want six-car trains during off-peak times. The agency cuts back six-car trains on its lines to four from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during the late fall and winter because ridership traditionally drops in that period.

But some riders have been complaining that the four-car trains are overcrowded.

Mr. White said the agency is checking ridership numbers and could add cars. Officials say running six-car trains during off-peak periods year-round would cost $3.5 million more in power and maintenance.

He also said riders can look forward to three new stations next December: the New York Avenue station on the Red Line and two stations on the Blue Line.

The 3.1-mile Blue Line extension includes about 2,700 parking spaces. There are about 52,000 spaces in the Metro system, with plans to add 10,000. Mr. White said that still won’t be enough to satisfy riders’ “insatiable appetite for parking.”

“We will continue to build parking, but there are limits as to what we can expect in the future,” he said.

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