- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

Metro’s budget committee yesterday voted to cease running the shorter late-night trains because of irate customers, but warned that the experiment shows how bad service could get without dedicated funding.

Metro officials reverted to running the regular four-car trains after receiving numerous complaints from riders about overcrowded cars and being stranded on platforms. The transit system had run the two-car subway trains after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday for five days in late June.

“It was a good experiment and it was well-intentioned, but we’ve seen the error of our ways,” said board Vice Chairman Dana Kauffman, a Democrat who also serves on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The switch to the shorter trains, which jammed more than 150 persons into a car on some lines, would have sliced $1 million from the fiscal 2005 budget over the course of a year.

“At this point, if we continue to do things we have done in the past, we’ll be having this discussion about raising fares or cutting services every year,” said Metro General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Richard A. White.

The transit agency is facing a $41.7 million spending gap in its proposed $1 billion budget for fiscal 2006, a 10.3 percent increase in the shortfall from the previous year. A $31 million shortage is projected for fiscal 2007.

“People need to understand, these are the choices that we have to make,” said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. “We have to decide whether or not we want our trains to be overcrowded. If we do not, it’s got to be paid for. [The two-car trains] are just a little taste of how bad it could be.”

The $1 million needed to return to the four-car trains will be provided by revenue generated by extended fee-collection hours for parking, officials said.

Agency managers will present a proposed two-year budget to the board in December. In order to avoid a third straight year of fare increases, the budget plan calls for the District and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs to absorb the entire $41.7 million deficit by increasing subsidies paid by the jurisdictions.

The board agreed that another fare increase was not an option for rectifying the system’s budget woes. In June, Metro raised fares for the second time in as many years.

“To say a third fare increase is ‘undesirable’ is a massive understatement,” said board member Jim Graham, a Democrat representing Ward 1 on the D.C. Council. “Another increase is out of the question and should be off the table.”

But board members acknowledged that obtaining a dedicated source of funding is imperative if another fare increase is to be avoided.

“We have to [stress to] our riders and stakeholders that a 10 percent subsidy increase is just as undesirable” as a fare increase, said board Second Vice Chairman Gladys W. Mack. “We are reaching a point where we cannot go any further on just fares and subsidies. We need some relief.”

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments agreed Wednesday to form a 13-member panel to identify possible options for giving Metro a reliable cash flow. Commuters, transit representatives and members of various governments from around the Washington area will be on the panel, which is expected to issue its report in mid-December.

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