Friday, March 13, 2009

Metro Board members agreed Thursday to create regional plans for closing a $29 million funding shortfall for the rail and bus system after some members balked at using stimulus money.

Members of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s finance committee decided that Maryland, Virginia and the District should consider bus service cuts, increasing subsidies or a combination of both to balance Metro’s budget.

The committee also decided to schedule hearings to get transit riders’ input on using the plans or on using part of the $200 million in transportation money coming to the system as part of the stimulus package.

“We’ll have a set of options, each one of which works,” said Peter Benjamin, committee chairman and one of Maryland’s representatives on the transit authority.

Under the current formula for determining each jurisdiction’s portion of Metro funding, Maryland’s share of the gap is $16 million.

The decision to produce regional plans came at the end of a contentious two-hour-plus meeting. Board members repeatedly clashed over the stimulus option and other alternatives for balancing Metro’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. told the committee that using stimulus money would reduce or eliminate funding for capital projects, including $6 million less for replacing aging buses.

Catherine Hudgins, who represents Fairfax County, was one of several board members who expressed reservations about dipping into the stimulus money.

“When you remove these capital commitments … we are starting to dig a hole again,” said Ms. Hudgins. “I’m very concerned about what we are being asked to do.”

Several members also proposed generating $35 million in revenue with a 10-cent, across-the-board fare increase or saving money by cutting rail service.

But board Chairman Jim Graham, a D.C. Council member representing Ward 1 as a Democrat, and D.C. Deputy Mayor Neil Albert vowed to veto any proposed fare increase.

“I have been against fare increases as long as I have been a member of this board,” Mr. Graham said. “I’m remaining consistent to a point of view that I’ve had throughout.”

An original $154 million shortfall has been pared down through a combination of cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, the elimination of vacant positions and reductions in overtime.

Mr. Catoe proposed last month a series of bus and rail service cuts to close the remaining budget gap.

The idea drew strong opposition from transit riders, including Ben Ross, chairman of the Transit First! Coalition.

Mr. Ross said after the meeting that he was happy to see subsidy increases included among the options, but he also worried about potential cuts in service.

“There’s a possibility here now of a good solution,” he said, “but there’s also a big danger that we’re going to have a loss of service.”

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