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Big Turnout For Hearing on Metro Budget Cuts

Hyattsville -- John Catoe is a brave guy. The Metro general manager could have picked the transit authority's Vienna hearing tonight. Fairfax County has come up with enough money to avoid Metrobus cuts in that jurisdiction.

No, tonight, Catoe is at the hearing in Hyattsville in Prince George's County, which is ground zero for the numerous cutbacks that Metro still needs to balance it's budget. Maryland has not come up with the money it would take to avoid the cuts here.

"We will not condone any profanity ... not that we're expecting it," says Metro Board member Elizabeth Hewlitt, who is chairing the meeting.

Catoe walks the crowd through the numbers, focusing on how the transit authority get its projected deficit of $154 million down to the $29 million figure from which it could reduce no more without more subsidies from the local jurisdictions, or service cuts.

That's when the jurisdictions had to come up with their own formulas for closing the gap. Some offered more money to reduce or eliminate the cuts in their jurisdictions. Others couldn't go that far and had to fall back on cuts. Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari is here, too. Another show of courage. The meeting pits Prince George's officials against the state government, because the state of Maryland, rather than Prince George's and Montgomery counties, is the decision maker on the cuts.

Here's a link to the list of proposed Metrobus cuts regionwide.

More than 45 people are signed up to Catoe and the board members tonight. (There were four at the hearing in Vienna, which also began at 6:30 tonight. There will be a total of six hearings this week. Then the board looks over all the public comment and makes a final decision, with the consequences to fall on the public on June 28.

Prince George's Council Member Tom Dernoga says "We really need MDOD [the Maryland Department of Transportation] to step up here... we need to focus some stimulus money here in Prince George's."

Metro has stimulus money, too, that could be diverted to close the budget gap. The problem with using either using Metro stimulus money or Maryland stimulus money for the budget is that you'd take it away from some other project it's been assigned to. In Metro's case, it might be the repair of stations, or new bus purchases or upgraded fare vending machines. It could mean riders will face a larger fare increase next year than they otherwise would. In Maryland's case, it might be money for road repairs or MARC service improvements.

Using one-shot money, such as the stimulus money, to patch over a long term budget problem is what they tell you not to do in Budget School.

But others who testify are pointing out that many of these transit riders are out of options, too. They don't have a Plan B for getting to work if their bus is canceled. The audience is warming up to those observations.

Bowie Council member Todd Turner says about a third of the bus lines serving the city will be cut. They may not be the most popular lines in the Metrob us system, he says, but they are critical to those who use them.

The Prince George's County Department of Public Works argues that elimination of routes should be considered only as a last resort, and believes we're not there yet. Instead, the department says, five Metrobus lines are proposed for elimination in Prince George's. Two routes that now operate express to DC will be turned back at rail stations in Prince George's.

People are following up the officials by telling their own stories about how they depend on the R3 or the C12 and other bus routes. This is the part the board and the general public needs to hear. This is the part that stands up to the bookkeeping about low performing bus routes for which people can find alternatives. These people, who are old, or have lower incomes, or who use walkers, refer to bus routes like they were family members. They don't know about balanced budgets. They believe it is fundamentally unfair that a vital part of their lives -- the way they get around -- should disappear.

By Robert Thomson  |  April 13, 2009; 6:55 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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The state of Maryland needs to protect its existing transit and road network. It can delay parts of new projects (like the ICC) and transfer funds to WMATA to keep bus service going while we dig out of the recession.

Posted by: kreeggo | April 14, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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