Metro Board Considering Service and Fee Options
Metro board members this morning got into the transportation politics of how to limit service cuts in their jurisdictions without increasing the subsidies that those jurisdictions pay to operate Metro. The staff is calculating that the budget shortfall is down to about $29 million.
We're in striking range of potentially solving this problem, said Peter Benjamin, who represents Maryland on the board.
Jim Graham, who represents the District and is board chairman, refered to the cuts under consideration -- cuts in bus and rail service and in rail station operations -- as drastic.
Among the questions under consideration in this board work session at Metro headquarters is whether any of the federal stimulus money can, or should be used to help close the budget gap. Board members and staff do not appear to be real warm to this idea, because it means they wouldn't have that amount of stimulus money available for other projects. It is possible that $30 million in stimulus money could be used to close the budget gap if the board chooses, the transit authority staff says.
Also under review, at the request of Graham, is the impact of charging for parking at Metro lots and garages on weekends. Metro officials are pointing out they don't have much data to work with yet in calculating the impact of a weekend charge of say, $2.50 or $3 per day, on revenue.
An initial calculation suggests parking revenue might increase by $26,715, but that doesn't account for whatever decline in rail ridership might result from a decline in the number of people parking on weekends because they don't want to pay the parking fee.
"I think the ridership is expecting us to be creative" in coming up with solutions that limit service cuts, says Graham.
Graham is asking for more information from the staff about the impact of a fee on parking at particular stations.
Maryland and Fairfax representatives don't want to go down this path. (Most of Metro's parking is in the suburbs.)
Benjamin says that he will not support a parking fare increase on weekends.
"It is a fare increase," Catherine Hudgins of Fairfax County says of the possibility of a weekend parking charge.
Graham asks board members to keep an open mind on the issue.
"Ultimatums don't work," Graham says in response to the negative comments from the Maryland and Virginia representatives on the weekend parking fee idea. (Most of Metro's parking is in the suburbs.) "I don't put this idea on the table to annoy the people who are against it."
Chris Zimmerman, board representative from Arlington, says he doesn't believe anyone in the nation is going to experience free public parking in the years ahead, and he'd like more information on parking fee issues for Metro. He, like Graham, notes that Metro has 57,000 parking spaces. (Metro is the region's largest provider of parking.)
The transit authority staff has been reviewing the financial and service implications of adjusting the service for disabled riders so that it doesn't exceed the minimum requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Benjamin expresses discomfort with this. Graham is asking for more information about the real life impact of this on riders.
Retail in Metro
Can Metro make more money by offering retail outlets at stations? Potential clients are saying they don't believe they could make enough money by setting up shop at stations unless they could sell food and drinks, the transit authority staff says. Metro staff is not crazy about this idea, because they don't want people carrying food and drinks into the train system.
Zimmerman is questioning whether anybody wants to do anything besides sell food and drink. Don't people want to sell other stuff? he asks. Can't we let small vendors sell stuff -- umbrellas, for example -- that riders want? He's not suggesting that the revenue would make a serious dent in the budget gap. He's at least as interested in the basic idea of providing more amenities for riders.
Staff does not recommend calculating extra revenue for retail to close the current budget gap. General Manager John Catoe notes that the budget under developed for fiscal year 2010, the budget they're talking about today, already contains several revenue assumptions that have not been fully tested and he is reluctant to add more.
Things are moving fast. The budget calendar says that at the board meeting next Thursday, staff wants to see board approval to go out for public hearings on servicce reductions. There would be two weeks notice of the hearing times and places.The hearings would occur between March 23 and April 3, according to the schedule.
Board members are talking about whether they can now go back to their jurisdictions with the numbers provided to them today about their jurisdictional responsibilities and figure out how to close the remaining gap through some combination of service cuts and subsidy increases.
It's not at all clear how that will come out. The District, for example, is not prepared to increase its Metro subsidy, and at the same time, Graham says, it finds the proposed cuts in bus service in the District to be unacceptable.
On the other hand, Zimmerman says "We can swing it in our jurisdiction without the service cuts."
February 26, 2009; 10:15 AM ET
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