- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

The pitch is on for financing the Metro transit system. On Thursday, its board warned of a $42 million spending gap in the proposed 2006 budget and called on regional and federal governments to increase their respective subsidies. Instead of leaning more heavily on subsidies, however, Metro officials should look inside their own shops to find ways to increase revenues, such as advertising.

Metro’s financial picture is not exactly grim, though it is a bit cloudy. But it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with better financial planning and efficiency, and better marketing.

Money is tight because of new projects already on the books — such as employee benefits and a new station on New York Avenue NE — and capital projects Metro officials already have on the drawing board, whose price tag is $1.5 billion in capital through this decade. If local authorities do not boost funding, Metro officials said that passengers would faced crowded buses and rail cars, and that repairs and maintenance would suffer. Timing is important, they said, since they are trying to purchase and bring new rail cars online this fall.

Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington said huge increases in subsidies are needed to “avert disaster.” Mr. Zimmerman’s assessment, however, is an exaggeration.

Notwithstanding the costs to keep up with natural wear and tear, both policy and management decisions significantly drove up — and are driving up — the costs. We could list the lengthy missteps made in just the past six or seven years that got Metro in this fix. Suffice it to say, as Board member David Catania, a D.C. representative, did, “We have nearly doubled what we spend on health care for employees in the past five years, driven disproportionately by prescription drugs.”

No first-class transit system can survive on fares and subsidies alone, and that is why Metro began pushing itself as an advertising venue.

To be sure, such options and, more importantly, such revenues, are substantial and could be used as a guaranteed dedicated source of funds — so long as the ads do not advocate breaking the laws of the District or morality. (A cursory spellcheck would be a good idea, too.)

While we hesitate to push for yet another — but obviously necessary — increase in fares, the below-market rates at Metro parking lots could certainly stand another increase. Yet instead, Metro officials and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority are pushing for increased subsidies, which bear down on all taxpayers.

The crowded subway platforms, jammed parking lots and late-night demands prove Metro’s popularity. Public transportation is a pay-as-riders-go system. It simply would not be fair to overburden local, state and federal taxpayers, when the overwhelming majority of them do not use the system with any regularity. Since regional governments are not in a financial position to finance Metro’s Plan A, we urge officials to go back to the drawing board in search of Plan B.

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