- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

Metro officials outlined a proposal yesterday to make the system cleaner and more efficient, including revamping the customer-service call center and returning trash cans to rail stations.

The initiatives package would cost $10.2 million and is not included in the proposed fiscal 2006 operating budget of more than $1 billion.

Metro officials want to spend $1.3 million to hire 16 more employees to help reduce the increasing number of complaints they say have overwhelmed the agency’s customer-service department.

Leona Agouridis, Metro’s assistant general manager for communications, said the major reasons for the additional complaints are the sharp increase in ridership, unreliable service and fare increases.

Board member William D. Euille, the mayor of Alexandria, said a better solution would be to eliminate the complaints by spending more money to improve service.

“We’re not in the business of taking calls. We’re in the business of running” trains and buses, he said. “We should be examining what we are doing to reduce the calls. I’d rather invest the money in the service part than in customer service.”

The trash cans were removed from the platforms following the September 11 terrorist attacks. But recent surveys show customers are increasingly displeased with trash strewn throughout the rail system.

In response, officials are proposing explosion-resistant trash cans for rail station platforms and mezzanines.

Board member and D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, wanted to know how soon the trash cans, which would cost $800,000 to install, could be added.

“It would be a tangible, immediate improvement that customers will respond to very well,” he said.

Arlington County board member Christopher Zimmerman agreed.

“We’ve got to do some things to give us credibility [with riders] that we really are making an effort,” he said.

Officials also recommend using $4 million to improve safety and reliability, including $2 million for a rail-management program and for hiring additional track inspectors.

Richard A. White, Metro’s chief executive officer, proposed in December a base annual operating budget of $1.004 billion for fiscal 2006.

Included in the budget proposal is a recommendation for $1.7 million in maintenance upgrades, which includes doubling the staff assigned to clean rail cars at the ends of major lines and adding 10 cleaners to frequently clean high-volume stations.

To avoid fare increases such as those imposed for the past two years, the District and the Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions served by Metro will absorb the $41.7 million shortfall in the agency’s proposed $1 billion operating budget for fiscal 2006 and the $31.1 million projected shortfall for fiscal 2007.

In December, Mr. White said a $1 billion budget will help the agency provide a “baseline of service” for the fourth-largest transit system in the country.

The agency’s budget committee will review the budget plan until June. The board of directors will then make final recommendations and take a vote. The budget takes effect July 1.

Metro raised fares in June 2003 for the first time since 1995. Then the board of directors voted on June 27 to increase fares and parking rates to close a $23.4 million shortfall in the fiscal 2005 budget.

Metro officials also said yesterday that a committee created by Metro’s board of directors will conduct the first formal evaluation of Mr. White in about three years.

The ad hoc committee formed last fall met yesterday to discuss Mr. White, but did not formally evaluate him, said Steven Taubenkibel, an agency spokesman.

Mr. White was last evaluated by the board after his contract extension in 2002, Mr. Taubenkibel said. The results of Mr. White’s evaluation will not be released.

Mr. White’s pending evaluation, which is supposed to be conducted annually, was brought on by a problem-plagued 2004 for Metro.

The recent problems include an accident Nov. 3 on the Red Line in which one train rolled backward into another, injuring 20 riders at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro station. Investigation into the accident is pending.

In September, a pregnant woman was forced to the ground, handcuffed and taken to jail for speaking loudly and swearing on a cell phone at the Wheaton Metro station. In August, a pregnant woman and her husband said a broom-wielding Metro station manager berated them and pushed the husband for inquiring about an out-of-service escalator.

In July, a passenger was handcuffed and arrested for eating a candy bar as she was entering the Metro Center station. And in June, the Metro Board approved a fare increase for the second consecutive year.

Officials reported in February losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars from its parking lots and garages. An internal audit found cashiers employed by then-contractor Penn Parking stole $500,000 to $1 million a year from cash payments made at the lots and garages.

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