Bright spots for riders? Metro wants to keep fares the same next year.
There is good news for commuters as Metro’s budget season gets underway.
The agency’s $3 billion proposal to fund both day-to-day operating expenses and major rehabilitation projects for next year would not raise fares, cut rail, bus, or MetroAccess service, or ask taxpayers in Metro’s eight city and county jurisdictions to pay more.
The proposal also assumes no increases in labor expenses next year beyond what is contractually obligated, largely the result of a planned transfer of $64 million in labor costs from Metro’s operating budget to federal grants to pay for preventive maintenance.
The wages, benefits, and pensions for 13,000 employees soak up more than 70 percent of Metro’s operating costs.
These developments may come as a surprise to any riders expecting higher fares or less service so that the transit authority — which has forecast growing costs will outstrip stagnant fare revenues for years to come — could balance its budget. The proposal expects fare and parking revenues in the next fiscal year to tumble $29.5 million, but it also includes “an increase in the amount of preventive maintenance activity that is funded by Federal Transit Administration grants rather than the operating budget.”
The budget plan will be discussed at Metro’s board of directors meeting on Thursday. The board is expected to adopt the budget in April so it can take effect on July 1, 2016.
Metro’s new general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, and several key WMATA board members have promised to maintain the status quo on fares, given the poor performance on Metro’s rail and bus systems over the past six months. On-time performance for trains, for instance, slipped in the third quarter to its lowest level since the transit authority established its current metrics in 2010.
“I was very clear going into this process that I would not support increasing fares or cutting service,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, one of two voting members on Metro’s board who represent the District.
Dollars vs. performance
While maintaining the status quo for fiscal year 2017 may work, Evans warned that Metro will not recover from its current doldrums without additional funding, especially for the major expansion projects outlined in the Momentum program that was approved by the board in 2013 but remains unfunded.
“We can continue to run the system you have. It's an inefficient system. It's not reliable, somewhat safe, kind of dirty,” Evans said. “But if you want a first-class system, like the one I visited in Shanghai, or if you go to Paris or many of the great cities of the world, it is going to cost us $25 billion over the next 10 years.”
Evans also called on Congress to begin funding a share of Metro’s $1.8 billion operating budget (the federal government does provide hundreds of millions annually for the capital side).
“I don't want to hear any politicians in this region from this day foward complain about Metro again, unless they are willing to put the money where their mouth is,” he said.
Asking Metro’s jurisdictions to come up with additional billions to fund Metro’s future capacity expansion is expected to be financially and politically challenging.
Maryland, which directly allocates its portion of funding on behalf of its two jurisdictions, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, already sends Metro close to $400 million annually for operating and capital expenses. Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner, who chairs the county’s transportation committee, said future dollars should be tied to performance.
“I think it is inevitable that we are going to have to pay more,” Berliner said. “Metro is the single-most important institution in our region. It cannot fail. My basic proposition is to hold Metro accountable for improvements and tie additional resources to meeting certain basic metrics.”
“Customer satisfaction, on-time, reliability, safety,” Berliner said. “The fundamentals of the system. Let’s have aggressive metrics for them, and meet them.”