Metro committee delays vote on budget options for two weeks

Metro board members discuss fare increases. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)
Metro board members discuss fare increases. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON — Metro board members have decided to delay a vote on fare increases or service cuts after a nearly a two-hour debate on Thursday.

Riders testifying to board members expressed growing unease at raising fares or cutting service because of the impact on the long term growth in the region. But few other options remain unless D.C., Maryland and Virginia agree to provide Metro with approximately $100 million in new operational subsidies for FY2016.

“I just want to state this as strongly as possible. We’re not going to have service cuts or fare increases in the District of Columbia. We will fully fund our portion of the subsidy,” says Jack Evans, who also vowed to vote against any board action that would have an impact in D.C.

Transit advocate groups also agree that between fare increases, service cuts or increased subsidies from the jurisdictions, only the third is palatable.

“Eighty-percent of those you polled support increasing state and local investment to meet Metro’s full operating budget shortfall, rather than include $46 million in fare increases and service cuts. When we see $46 million, we think of the spending on road and interchange projects where a single interchange can cost that much,” says Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

But if the jurisdictions do close the full operating budget shortfall, then those costs get passed onto all taxpayers.

“I hear some of the language that we just need to get through this year. At the same time, we are a transit dependent region. The need on our side of the river is pressing to find more ways to efficiently move people. We have very few bridges and we need to find a way through this,” says Mary Hynes, who also serves as Arlington Board Chair.

She admits this could mean higher taxes, but she believes it’s better than cutting late night bus service or only provide trains every 30 minutes on weekends. Since Hynes also chairs the Arlington board, her support for their portion of the subsidy likely means the rest of the board will also support it.

“Our share of the $35 million is a half-a-penny on my tax rate. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 bucks per month. When we cut services and increase fares, we shoot ourselves in the foot,” she adds.

Metro Interim General Manager Jack Requa agrees that riders don’t want higher fares or service cuts and that they won’t accept both in the same year. He adds that he’s confident that the jurisdictions will reach a deal to avoid it.

“We just need to get Maryland comfortable to participate at the same level and hopefully we can avoid these challenges this year,” says Requa.

Ultimately that decision could come down to the folks in Annapolis. While Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner is behind Metro funding, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wants to cut spending and has expressed an interest in funding highways rather than transit.

Metro will vote in two weeks on the menu of choices, then give the public a chance to comment. The final vote for a FY2016 budget could come in late May. Until then, it’s a fluid document and likely to change.

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