MoCo to WMATA: Don’t raise fares or cut service

WASHINGTON — Montgomery County lawmakers want Metro to know that they do not support raising fares on customers or cutting service to help balance the budget.

Metro wants Maryland, D.C. and Virginia to pay $882.8 million in subsidies, or about $105 million more than in Fiscal Year 2015. Some board members have balked at the figure and are unsure whether $105 million is feasible.

Former General Manager Richard Sarles released the proposal in December that offered options to board members, including increasing fares and cutting back service, to make up the difference.

However, Montgomery County Council members Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen and Tom Hucker tell Metro in a letter that those solutions are not satisfactory.

“Regrettably, we believe that the staff budget proposal threatens to create a ‘death spiral.’ If fares increase even further and service deteriorates, fewer people will opt to ride Metro. Lower ridership in turn will inevitably translate into further service cuts, fare increases and even lower ridership. This is most assuredly not a sustainable path forward,” the letter reads.

Berliner is concerned that higher fares and less frequent service would mean more people will commute on Interstates 95 and 270 and the Capital Beltway.

“Our region needs to do everything in its power to get people out of their cars, not give them good excuses to get in them,” says Berliner.

In Sarles’ budget, Metro requested $147.2 million from Montgomery County and $188.6 million from Prince George’s County in Fiscal Year 2016 — or $335.7 million in total.  Metro has since raised that number to approximately $338 million for Maryland.  But the Hogan administration is only willing to pay $329.5 million and wants Metro to find another way to fill the $8.5 million gap.”

In Maryland, the governor and the General Assembly appropriate the money for the counties. Interim General Manager Jack Requa told reporters earlier this month that Metro is waiting on Maryland to decide how to proceed.

Erin Montgomery, spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, referred WTOP to the Department of Transportation for a statement on Metro funding.

In an email, Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson tells WTOP:

“To be clear, Maryland already committed to a 12 percent increase in WMATA operating subsidies for the FY 2016 budget compared to the FY 2015 budget. In December, when WMATA released its budget with operating subsidies that well exceeded the 12 percent increase, Maryland Board Member Michael Goldman told WMATA to sharpen its pencil and find additional cost savings to limit the increase to 12 percent. We anticipate WMATA will release these lower numbers at its board meeting on Thursday. For perspective, excluding WMATA’s operating subsidies, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s operating costs have only increased 3 ½ percent department wide from FY 2015 to FY 2016.”

If Metro doesn’t raise fares or cut expenses, then it must rely on subsidies to fund the budget.

“Metrorail’s farebox recovery rate of 66 percent is the highest in the nation. As a result of this farebox recovery rate, fares are already too high and budgets are extremely sensitive to corresponding dips in ridership. Instead of this unsustainable model, the WMATA Board should push further for additional and dedicated funding from the state and local jurisdictions that use and fund the service,” the Montgomery County letter reads.

Berliner also calls on Metro to hire an independent auditor to investigate the agency, particularly after the tragedy at L’Enfant Plaza in January. The auditor would review on-time performance, bus and rail car reliability, escalator and elevator availability, customer satisfaction public safety.

“WMATA needs to adopt serious reforms in order to regain the public trust,” says Berliner. “But we can’t use the failures of WMATA as an excuse to starve WMATA.”

Metro could approve a list of options on Thursday, then the agency will hold public hearings. With formal adoption in May or June, there is still a chance the fare increases and service cuts will be eliminated from the final budget.

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