- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Money doesn’t grow on trees, as most average Americans have learned during the era of COVID-19. And it doesn’t matter whether the tree is growing in Brooklyn, burning in California or standing tall in a cul-de-sac in suburban Virginia or Maryland.

It all comes down to the third R of “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” The fundamental equation 1 + 1 = 2 still applies.

And the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority refuses to do the math.

Recently, the transit agency raised the specter of $200 million in spending cuts if Metrorail revenue, which typically covers 28% of the budget, doesn’t rise to the bean-counting occasion by the end of the December.

In preparation for the chopping block, Metro is pondering laying off or furloughing 1,700 employees, and ending Metrorail service at 9 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, among other things. Quelle horreur!

The downside? As soon as happy-hour folks sip the last drop of their whiskey, they will have to head home. Bother, bother.

Does this mean that bus and rail riders would have to actually pay as they go, just like other commuters and motorists who use Northern Virginia toll roads?

Does it mean that taxpayers who live in three separate jurisdictions — the District, Maryland and Virginia — would no longer pay local, state and federal taxes to cover Metro subsidies so that schoolchildren, young adults and Metro workers can ride Metrobus for free?

Nah. Let’s try a 1 + 1 = 3 formula. Metro is a mass transit convenience for taxpayers who actually live and work in the nation’s capital but claim legal residency nowhere near the Beltway. In fact, many of them even vote in their IRS-claimed “home state.”

Aha, and then there’s this: It’s presidential election season. So Metro can depend on Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to raise everyone’s taxes to pay for Metro, a huuuuge convenience for lobbyists and federal workers, including those who work in the White House and Congress.

If the House has its way, the Senate will give a nod and President Biden, scratch that, President Trump will bless the newest coronavirus stimulus package, the HEROES Act, which was voted on Monday.

Said Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld: “Cutting service, shortening operating hours, laying off and furloughing workers — these all run counter to the strong recovery that everyone wants.”

Well, Mr. Wiedefeld, who doesn’t sound like he has high hopes of closing another spending gap, should look on the bright side. If push comes to shove, he could propose delaying some nonsafety-related capital projects and raising rail and bus fares, thus taking pressure off states and localities from considering, dare I even mention it, tax increases.

Metro officials aren’t scheduled to vote on a stopgap plan until November.

What’s certain is that Metro clearly needs a line-by-line budget review — or a Selma rail/bus-like boycott, if you will. Such a bean-counting audit will surely expose the red ink.

In the meantime, the coronavirus has unearthed a mathematical reality: Metro should brace for spending cuts ASAP.

Deborah Simmons can be contacted at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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