- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Metro’s $116 million deficit for fiscal 2008 means one thing for certain: It’s time to raise fares for rail and bus service.

Earlier this year, transit authorities found that increasing operating costs, in part attributable to rising energy costs, were offset by increased ridership, which included commuters deterred from driving by high gas prices. We argued at the time that if ridership plateaued, or if ridership increases required more trains and buses, then Metro would need to raise fares. The ridership increases that officials had hoped for didn’t happen, and the budget for fiscal 2008 managed to grow more than 9 percent from the fiscal 2007 budget, leaving Metro with its current budget problem. While Metro’s board of directors should certainly consider different options for increasing revenue to help fill the budget gap, that discussion will necessarily return to higher ticket prices.

Increased revenue is only one part of Metro’s financial picture, however. Officials are also discussing cutting back service, which may in the end prove necessary. But Metro should first make sure that it has exhausted efforts to maximize efficiency and reduce cost in ways that do not curtail rail and bus service. Metro could rein in some of its personnel expenses by correcting the current overtime system, which allows some train and bus operators to pull in more than $30,000 per year in overtime on top of their $52,000 per year base salary. Higher fares will not be well received, particularly if it appears that Metro has not made a satisfactory effort to address its operating expenses before looking to boosting its revenue.

There are, of course, other funding concerns for Metro — the lack of a dedicated source of funding is an issue we expect to hear plenty about — but transit officials should look first to those who benefit most directly from the service, not to taxpayers at large. Opposition in Richmond and Annapolis is an obstacle to dedicated funding that supporters in the District — and on Capitol Hill — have not yet been able to overcome.

Metro board members will meet today to discuss the fiscal 2008 budget. In order to raise fares, transit officials will need to offer forms open to citizens for comment on the proposed increase. They shouldn’t wait long to begin firming up dates for these public hearings: When John Catoe, Metro’s well-compensated new general manager, assumes his duties in January, budget issues should be first on his agenda.

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