- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

Metro officials have increased fees for parking and riding buses and subways to reduce a $48 million budget deficit, but will not discontinue such perks as free rides for its more than 10,000 employees, which could generate as much as $17.5 million a year.

General Manager Richard A. White said the agency “treats every dollar of expense or revenue as a critical dollar,” but said free rides for employees and retirees is a long-standing tradition.

“The benefit has been in effect since the beginning of time,” he said.

Mr. White said the perk is “entirely consistent with other transit systems,” and that it encourages employees to ride the system. Employees who use the system also can spot areas for improvement and make suggestions, he said.

Donna Aggazio of the American Public Transportation Association said it is standard practice for mass-transit systems to offer free rides to employees. A spokesman for the New York City system said retired employees receive free passes, as do Metro’s 1,660 retirees.

“It’s not unreasonable to offer free rides,” Mr. White said.

However, Jim Graham, D.C. Council member and chairman of Metro’s board of directors, said the perk may be unnecessary.

“We should not automatically accept this,” he said. “In tight budget times, when we’re facing cuts in services, this ought to be reviewed with everything else,” said Mr. Graham, who plans to discuss the issue with Mr. White.

A Metro spokesman said the agency could not estimate the amount of potentially lost revenue. The Washington Times based its estimate on the agency’s 10,141 employees using a subway to commute to work each work day.

“Wow. I had no idea it was that amount of money,” Mr. Graham said. “I am concerned.”

The free-ride program is also available to about 3,000 police officers of the Metropolitan Police Department and other agencies.

According to The Times’ calculations, if each employee who commutes five days a week paid the new, minimum fare of $1.20 one way, Metro could generate an extra $5.8 million. If each paid the new maximum fare of $3.60 each way, Metro could earn an additional $17.5 million.

Metro has a $1.2 billion budget comprising a $900 million operating budget and a $300 million Capital Improvement Program. Though ridership has increased over the last four years, the trend slowed this past year because of terrorism fears and a harsh winter. At the same time, budget crunches in state and local governments have reduced subsides for Metro, which does not have a dedicated revenue source.

Metro has also increased its expenses recently by extending weekend hours, adding police officers and implementing its SmarTrip card technology. As a result, the agency had to cut 260 positions to offset the budget shortfall.

The fare increases, which take effect Sunday, raise the base fare for rail and bus from $1.10 to $1.20. Parking rates will increase 75 cents to $3 at most lots.

Maximum rail fare will increase from $3.25 to $3.60, and reserving a monthly parking spot will cost $95, up from $65. The cost of one-day rail passes will increase from $5 to $6; seven-day passes will increase from $25 to $30.

Metro also will eliminate the 10 percent bonus that had been added to fare-card purchases of $20 or more. The rail-to-bus paper transfer is to be eliminated, but not until SmarTrip technology is installed on Metro buses later this year. SmarTrip card holders will then receive a 40-cent discount on bus-to-train and train-to-bus transfers.

The increases and cuts will generate about $40 million, and $6 million will go to fund an escalator- and elevator-improvement program. Metro will close the remaining $14 million gap by eliminating the positions, many through early retirement.

Despite the cost-cutting measures, Metro was still forced to dip into an operating reserve fund to cover the remaining $5 million shortfall.

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