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Metro makes ultimatum to area officials: pay up, or we cut rail service

I previously wrote about Metro’s budgetary problems and the impact they have on governments and taxpayers in the DC  area here.

Metro officials have warned, in light of the drafting of the fiscal budget for Metro in 2015, that if local jurisdictions don’t increase subsidies to Metro, that rail service will have to be cut to save costs.

This cost-cutting comes on the heels of increased fares- and stagnant rail ridership. The stagnation in revenues comes at a particularly bad time for Metro, as it comes off of the construction of the first leg of the Silver line and into efforts to reintroduce automation alongside 8-car trains across all lines. The combination of new costs and stagnant revenues led Metro to ask for more subsidies.

The Metro budget for 2015 has a contribution of $892 million from all jurisdictions that Metro currently serves, the city itself and then the Virginia and Maryland suburbs and cities that it serves. This is a 10.3 percent increase from last year; the subsidy was increased six percent for this years budget.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that, if these subsidies are not increased by local governments, that “then there are some really difficult choices that the board is going to have to wrestle with. And that’s when you start talking about running trains less frequently.” Mortimer Downey, a federal government representative on the Metro Board, added that if the subsidy “winds up below what’s now proposed by any substantial degree, there are going to have to be some real service cuts. Something is going to have to give. I just hope we don’t have to go there.”

The Post writes that, if trains were run less, that “During weekday rush hours (5 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.), trains would run every eight minutes instead of every six minutes on the Red, Orange, Green, Yellow and Silver lines, according to the proposed budget.” The Blue line, as noted by exasperated riders, already runs less than the other lines during both peak and non-peak hours.

These reductions would also cause more crowding at key stations like Rosslyn and Metro Center. Metro’s inevitable delays would make crowding even worse at these stations. Non-peak and Saturday trains would come every 15 mins rather than every 12, and trains on Sunday would come every 20 mins rather than every 15.

The current subsidy is $809 million, with each jurisdiction’s share of the cost based on how heavily it uses the Metro system. According to the Post, the breakdown in the current budget is “the District’s portion is 38 percent; Prince Georges’s, 21 percent; Montgomery, 16 percent; Fairfax County, 14 percent; Arlington, 7 percent; Alexandria, 4 percent; Falls Church, 0.3 percent; and the city of Fairfax, 0.2 percent.”

A 15 percent increase had been proposed earlier, only to be shot down by local representatives and officials. Instead, spending cuts have been made in order to lower projected expenses. The main thrust of these cuts, according to the Post, is the deferral of improvements to the Metro bus system by turning over some routes to local bus operators and by cutting about 50 vacant transit jobs.

Mortimer Downey told the post he sympathized with Metro board members who are also elected politicians. He said that “If they’re arguing in their communities for more of a subsidy for Metro, then that’s in competition with the school budget and their other local activities. So they’ve got to make some tough choices.”

Metro blames federal tax rules for stagnant rail ridership. Fare benefits formerly afforded to employees have dropped to $130 a month, making driving a more affordable option for some. It should also be noted that Metro service- beset with delays and problems, terrible on weekends, and constantly altered due to ever-present track work- is not exactly the most inspiring choice for consumers who can now benefit from falling oil prices.

Metro wants to put their $892 million difference between revenues and operations costs on local jurisdictions. Consumers who already pay Metro increased fares to ride would also have to bear an increased tax burden from their local governments, taking away money from other initiatives. This punishes consumers for Metro’s inefficiency.

If Metro has to reduce service, however, I could see the development of a vicious cycle. As service becomes more sporadic and stays about as unreliable as it is currently, and as gas prices stay temporarily low, driving will be a better option for many in outlying communities (to say nothing of telecommuting). If more people drive, fewer people ride, thereby sinking revenues requiring more subsidies. This could create a slowly building budgetary crisis as Metro’s various development initiatives are supported by fewer and fewer riders but more and more subsidies. Everyone would have to pay for a service fewer and fewer people were using.

An option that has not yet been mulled publicly has been reforms to the employee pension system or cuts to executive salaries. The local transit union ATU 689 currently pays only 1 percent towards their pensions, and will begin paying 3 percent towards said pensions in July 2015. These, it should be noted, are very recent concessions. These workers, however, have guaranteed pay increases of four percent in the next two fiscal years. According to WAMU, “Pension costs of $170 million are 10 percent of WMATA’s total operating budget and 15 percent of total payroll costs.”

Featured image from Shutterstock

Brad Matthews

Brad Matthews is the Digital Content Coordinator intern for Watchdog Wire. Twitter is @bradmatthewsDC

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Must Read, Taxes, Transportation

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