- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

Metro needs additional funding to close a spending gap for the next fiscal year, but doesn’t favor raising fares for the third straight year, despite constantly increasing costs, board members said yesterday.

The transit agency is facing a $41.7 million spending gap in its proposed $940.7 million budget for fiscal 2006, but Metro’s board members said they are hesitant to saddle riders with another fare increase.

“We need additional funding,” said board chairwoman Gladys W. Mack. “All we have is fares and subsidies. We can’t keep relying on just them as funding sources. We’re running out of options.”

The board called upon local and state governments to foot the bill, voting yesterday to send a plan for funding the gap to the District and to Maryland and Northern Virginia jurisdictions for approval.

If all funds needed to cover the gap are provided by local governments, there would be a 10.4 percent increase in the subsidy the governments pay to operate the system.

Metro is in financial strife mostly because of new services, such as the extension of the Blue Line to the Largo Town Center, the New York Avenue station, extended operating hours and employee fringe benefits.

Board member David A. Catania, an at-large Republican on the D.C. Council, expressed concern about employee benefits, which constitute 27 percent of the increase from last year’s budget.

“We have nearly doubled what we spend on health care for employees in the past five years, driven disproportionately by prescription drugs,” he said.

In October 2003, the transit company began campaigning to raise awareness about the need for $1.5 billion for capital funding over the next six years.

Officials from the jurisdictions and Metro will split the costs, with local governments paying more than $1 billion and the federal government paying $404 million.

Metro officials say not receiving these funds will result in decreased service reliability and increased overcrowding on trains and buses. If funding is not secured by October, Metro will miss a November deadline to purchase 50 rail cars, delaying plans to run eight-car trains for another two years.

The funds would allow Metro to repair, maintain and replace aging equipment, including trains, buses, elevators, escalators, tracks, power cables, stations and maintenance facilities.

Capital funding also would provide for 70 rail cars, in addition to the 50 needed by the November deadline, and 185 new buses to relieve overcrowding.

Meanwhile, the transit agency announced that SmarTrip cards are being sold online again after nearly a month of suspended sales because of a low supply.

Internet sales were stopped July 21, when the number of cards left dropped to fewer than 20,000.

After Metro switched to a cashless parking system on June 28, the supply of cards dwindled quickly. Buses equipped with SmarTrip fare boxes and an unexpected spike in summer tourism added to the demand for the cards, officials said.

The card supplier, Giesecke & Devrient, increased the rate of production, keeping the number of cards sufficient. The supply of cards never ran out and were still available at vending machines at rail stations, officials said.

As of yesterday, Metro parking lots no longer accepted paper fare cards as payment for parking.

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