Metro to lose millions from sequestration

Ari Ashe,

WASHINGTON – With sequestration looming, Metro says it could lose $22 million over the next six months in federal grants and fares from riders if the billions in planned federal budget cuts kick in.

“Like many others who have observed this process, I am disheartened by the inaction to find a better solution to the budget challenges we are all facing,” says Metro General Manager Richard Sarles.

About $12 million in federal grants Metro receives through the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act are in jeopardy. Metro uses the money for repairs, maintenance and the recently unveiled Momentum plan to improve the system for the next generation.

Metro receives $150 million total from the rail grants annually. The program faces an 8 percent cut under sequestration.

D.C., Maryland and Virginia each contribute another $50 million annually to match the federal grants, giving Metro $300 million for capital improvements.

“It is absolutely essential that we not lose ground today. At minimum, we need to hold the line on the federal funding that is crucial to continue safety investments and reliability improvements for our customers,” says Sarles.

Meanwhile, Metro projects it could lose another $10 million through September because of lower ridership from federal employees, who represent about 40 percent of users during rush hours. Thousands of civilian federal employees in the D.C. area could be furloughed because of the cuts.

“On a typical weekday, about 320,000 bus and train trips are taken by federal employees, generating about $820,000 in revenue,” says Sarles.

Metro couldn’t reduce service in response to sequestration because furloughs would likely be scattered across the work week, rather than all on one day.

Metro will consider budget cuts to make up for the lost revenue.

“I am going to do safety projects, that’ll always come first. But other projects that’ll affect customer service may be affected,” says Sarles.

When asked, Sarles mentioned track maintenance would not be affected, and a plan to replace 128 older escalators, including those at the Bethesda station, would not likely be affected either.

Metro recently entered into a $120 million contract to address escalator problems across the entire system between now and 2020.

But Sarles would not go into details about what specifically would be cut, other than to say that he’ll unveil a plan for cuts at a committee hearing in mid-March.

He also said there are no plans to revisit the issue of fare increases. Fares account for about 62 percent of Metro’s operating budget.

Metro announced in January that it would not push for higher fares in 2013.

Sarles suggests that federal lawmakers should take a cue from Virginia, where lawmakers negotiated a bipartisan deal reforming the state’s transportation funding. The compromise bill is now awaiting the governor’s signature.

“The best thing possible would be (for the federal government) to follow the lead of Virginia, settle the thing and get the funding for us,” says Sarles.

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