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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.

By Robert Thomson  |  October 22, 2009; 8:49 AM ET
Categories:  Metro , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metro budget, Metrobus, Metrorail  
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Next: Metro adding service for Monday night football


Bus fare must increase. Jim Graham needs to realize that he can't hold the system hostage. Rail riders at the ends of the lines bear the burden, and bus riders need to start paying their fair share. Bus fare should be at least $1.50 per ride. That's still less than a one-way minimum fare during peak hours on rail lines.

Posted by: lrubens | October 22, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Let's get into a little more detail about that contract Doc. All too often the ads are expired, outdated, or even empty. Metro responds to my emails saying the contract and third party vendor guarantee a revenue stream. If Metro managed it themselves in a manner more efficient then this third party vendor is obviously failing to do (given I saw ads in April 2009 for December 2008) then Metro would be maximizing the revenue it generates, without a third party vendor taking a cut.

The problem is Catoe and Metro management in general, not revenue.

Service cuts will lead to fewer riders, which will decreasing revenue, which will lead to more service cuts.

The solution is change management, get a regional consensus on federal contributions and implement.

We want regional jobs, get Congress to build third and fourth rails, an additional tunnel and the Beltway line we so desperately need.

Is this the national Capital or are we a second rate city with a second rate subway. At the moment we look and act like the latter.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | October 22, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Metro is in a corner. The biggest expense growth is in Metro Acess but no one is going to come out for any cuts there. Everyone wants the service and the fares to stay the same. They want Metro to somehow comeup with the money to cover the expense gap. If they don't they want the Metro management to be replaced. Haven't we been down this path before?

Posted by: Jimof1913 | October 22, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Metro can raise fares on tourists and infrequent riders while causing minmal harm to regular riders.
MetroBus should be $2 one-way for cash and $1.50 SmartTrip, free transfers should go back to 2 hours.
MetroRail should charge $1 per paper fare card plus $1.75 minimum off-peak and $2 minimum peak for farecard users. SmartTrip users would be $1.50 off-peak and $1.75 peak (raises of only $0.15 and $0.10). Max Fare for papercards is now $6 peak and $4 off-peak while going down to $5 and $3 for SmartTrip users.
Charge $1 for parking on weekends.
Express Bus: $4 for Cash, stays at $3 for SmartTrip.
Charge peak fares for special events like Cherry Blossoms, July 4th, etc.
These fare increases would force more regular and infrequent riders to buy a SmartTrip card, which will speed up buses and faregates. But more importantly it will increase revenue while having litle impact on regular riders and having the SmartTrip card may encourage more use of the system from infrequent riders.
Since adopton of SmartTrip by more rides is imporant to Metro, there must be a real financial benefit to having a SmartTrip card, $0.10 isn't it to people who ride the bus once a week and no benefit on Metro, I bet paper farecards ar emuch more expensiveto mero than a paper transfer! So, charge people $1 for each paper farecard!

Posted by: GlenBurnie | October 22, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

whats the point of having metroaccess if the crippled are virtually sodomized trying to get onto overcrowded trains?

Posted by: member5 | October 22, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

metro mgt needs a change. First off, they should actually take the metro. Then they can see what everyone else experiences, unreliable and slow service. Next thing is that they need to return service to normal speed. My commute takes an extra 20 minutes since the accident. Then, they should increase the fair cost. Im guessing 70-80% of the riders dont pay out of pocket since federal employees get metro subsidies. Therefor, metro can get more federal subsidies indirectly. Increase fair costs, that will help.
One last not so innovative solution: Offer pay-per service internet on the trains like they have at National/Dulles airport. I know some people would be willing to pay for internet service on the subway. Heck, the way metro is going, if they keep making the trains run slower and less in between, they could even offer a sleeping train.

Posted by: gte534j | October 22, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

The real problem that nobody wants to talk about is everything is negotiated with the transit union. You see what wonders the UAW is doing with the car industry and how wonderful our education system is with the teachers union. Get rid of the union and metro will be just fine.

Posted by: icmp | October 22, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

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