- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Metro will likely raise bus and subway fares this summer to help close a projected $290 million funding gap for next year.

The transit agency’s $1.82 billion budget fiscal 2018 employs what Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld called “balanced sacrifice” in doling out budget cuts. He said most of 11,000 riders surveyed said they’d prefer a fare hike over reduced service, so he restored millions of dollars worth of bus service cuts in his previous budget.

“I recognize that even with some relief for customers, this proposal is tough medicine for the region, jurisdictions, riders and Metro employees, all of whom must contribute to balance this budget,” Mr. Wiedefeld said late Monday.

Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who has vehemently opposed fare increases, admitted last week that they might be necessary.

“This is one of those budgets where nobody gets everything they want, but at the end of the day, it’s a responsible budget,” Mr. Evans said at a board meeting.

The Metro Board’s Finance Committee will consider proposal Thursday, and the full board will likely vote on the budget on March 23.

The revised budget would increase rail, bus and parking fares for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Peak rail fares would increase 10 cents, raising the one-way minimum fare to $2.25 and the one-way maximum to $6. Off-peak rail fares would increase 25 cents.

Bus fares would increase 25 cents, to $2. Immune from the increase is the seven-day bus pass, which will stay at $17.50. That pass is often used by low-income riders — a group whose voice hasn’t always been heard during Metro’s decision-making.

The fare hikes will come just as Metro finishes the last of its SafeTrack repair surges. The 16 planned maintenance periods have accelerated, with about three years’ worth of work on the 117-mile system being completed in only one year.

Still, the service disruptions caused by the repairs have pushed away riders, and the fare hikes could exacerbate the declining ridership.

According to the latest Metro statistics, rail and bus ridership declined 9 percent in the last quarter of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. That’s about 16 million fewer trips.

Even with the revised budget there will be some service cuts. Subway service would reduce frequency during peak hours as part of Mr. Wiedefeld’s plan to “right size” the service after a steady decline in ridership.

Trains will run every 8 minutes on all lines during rush hour. There will be no off-peak service reductions. Most of the $5 million in restored bus service in the revised plan will come from adding back routes in Maryland and Virginia that had been proposed for elimination.

Along with the fare increases, much of the restored service was possible because the transit agency was able to fund some of its railcar parts from the capital budget, instead of the operating budget.

Under the revised plan, Metro is seeking increased support from Maryland, Virginia and the District, up from about $845 million in fiscal 2017 to about $976 million in fiscal 2018.

But whether the triumvirate can agree on the increase is yet to be seen. Less than a month ago the federal government began to withhold millions of dollars in transportation funds because the three jurisdictions missed the Feb. 9 deadline for creating a Metro safety commission that would replace the Tri-State Oversight Committee.

The Federal Transit Administration plans to withhold about $15 million over the next fiscal year if the commission is not established. All three jurisdictions had to pass identical legislation chartering the group.

Only the District, which passed a measure in December, met the deadline. The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation creating the commission and is waiting on final approval from Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In Maryland, the House approved its own bill unanimously last week and is waiting on Senate approval.

But after the commission is approved by each jurisdiction, there’s still the lengthy process of congressional approval and standing up the commission. The FTA said it won’t release the millions in federal funding until the commission is officially certified, which could take until later this year.

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