Metro urged to avoid service cuts, find more money
The most obvious place to make big cuts in the transit authority budget is in MetroAccess, the service for disabled riders. It's the most heavily subsidized of Metro's services, its growth is out of control, and the transit authority exceeds the service requirements set in federal law.
Yes, it's obvious. Until riders who are in wheelchairs, who are blind or who are frail begin to tell their stories about how MetroAccess connects them with the world. Without it, they'd be shut in their homes. They'd certainly have to quit their jobs and severely limit their social contacts. Then you start to visualize people like Ann Pimley of Fairfax sitting at home when they would otherwise be out making a big contribution to their community, and you wonder if you'll be thinking about that every time you save a dime on your fare card.
"People have made life decisions based on the services they receive," she said.
This is a typical scenario for a forum about Metro's budget problems. They start with bookkeeping presentations. Here's how much money the transit authority expects to have. Here's how much it expects to spend. Here's the impressive difference. Here's what we propose to cut.
Then actual humans who use these services get up and start to talk. The numbers don't look so impressive. The humans do.
On Wednesday night in Falls Church, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission sponsored a forum with Metro officials that followed that basic pattern, though with a bit of a different format. When Metro -- or any government agency -- holds a budget hearing, it's basically: You talk, they listen, then everybody goes home.
In this one, the leaders discussed, the public talked, the leaders discussed what the public said, then the people got their say again and the leaders again reacted. That was nice. Some call it two-way communication.
In fact, that was the point. Metro's leaders know they've got a real problem this year that's likely to lead to a fare increase, or service cuts, or both. Before General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. actually proposes something, Metro board members wanted to go around the region to share their side of this, perhaps building support, or at least tolerance, for some upcoming pain. But at the same time, they are giving the public an early chance to offer their own ideas about how to make the transit system work better.
Sometimes, the public's ideas give the Metro officials a chance to make their case. For example, riders often ask why Metro can't balance its budget by getting more advertising. There's all that space and such a big, captive audience on the trains and buses. Metro says it makes about $40 million a year on an advertising contract that's about to expire. They say that contract, negotiated during a more robust economy, was pretty good. Metro isn't likely to do as well with a new one.
But there are other times when the leaders have to acknowledge a point. Catoe promised that he'd have a response today about why some some outdoor station lights are on all day.
If that saves some money, it will be a little bit. But it's really unlikely anyone will have the one big idea that causes the Metro leaders to smack their heads and yell, "That's it!" There will be a batch of light bulb ideas over the next few months that Metro will have to act on, and then there will be some of the usual rough and tumble over how much money the local jurisdictions can contribute to maintain services and how much of a fare increase we can tolerate.
And there will be plenty more stories about how much people have come to depend on something as seemingly tenuous as a bus or a van.
October 22, 2009; 8:49 AM ET
Categories: Metro , transit | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metro budget, Metrobus, Metrorail
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