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Transit riders talk to Metro board on budget crisis

Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham convened the public hearing on Metro's budget crisis at 5:47 p.m. as several hundred people seated themselves or found standing room in three packed rooms at the transit authority's downtown Washington headquarters.

I'm watching Graham on a big screen, where board committee's normally watch power point presentations from the staff. The board members have divided themselves among the rooms. In the room I'm in are board members Peter Benjamin, William Euille and Catherine Hudgins and Marcell Solomon.

General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. began the hearing with a presentation on the state of Metro's finances, saying that Metro doesn't have enough money to get through the end of it's fiscal year on June 30. Spending is right on target, he says. The problem is revenue. Fewer people are riding, so Metro is making less money. He attributed this to the recession and cited the experiences of other major transit systems across the nation.

Metro is holding this hearing get comments on how it should close $16 million of an anticipated $40 million budget gap. People are here from across the region. The speakers include ordinary riders and government officials.

Some people listened closely, some took notes, others review the testimony they were about to give. Catoe noted that Metro has presented the public with four options, involving various forms of fare increases, service cuts and transfers from the capital budget. He noted that there is a fifth option: A blend of the ideas presented by riders and reviewed by the board.

[6:30 p.m. update]
Many people are here to tell the board they are willing to pay more to avoid service cuts. They site personal examples of how a specific service cut would affect their travels, sometimes their lives. One rider focused on proposed elimination of eight-car trains and a longer waiting time on train platforms at night.. Another, a tour guide, said a later opening of the train system on weekends would affect his livelihood, because so many visits want to get an early start on their tours. Another rider talked about the need to maintain service on Metrobus's 14th Street Line, which is crowded enough now.

This meant they were speaking against Option 1, the proposal that includes the service cuts. Ben Ross, the chairman of the Transit First! Coalition, called the service cuts "unacceptable" because the region is filled with people who depend on Metro. It has revitalized Washington, he said.

The highway network is being expanded at a cost of billions of dollars, he said. To make Metro riders absorb the burden of service cuts is unfair.

He endorsed the taking money from Metro's capital budget, but said it should come along with a commitment to pay the money back into the capital budget.

[7 p.m. update]
Kevin Moore of MetroRiders.Org, another transit advocacy group, thanked the board for holding the hearing, as have others. His group supports Option 4, which includes a 10-cent fare surcharge and the smallest transfer from the capital budget.

While every speaker denounces service cuts for Metrorail, Metrobus and MetroAccess, a much smaller number said what they would do instead. Those who do express a preference ask the board to pick Option 4 and express a great deal of tolerance for a fare increase if necessary to avoid service cuts.

Some comment on the impact of taking money from the long-term maintenance and equipment-buying budget, but not in detail. Most frame the board's decision as a choice between service cuts and fare increases, which it isn't. The board could choose to take the full $16 million it needs from the capital budget when it meets on Thursday.

[8:30 update]
Graham adjourned the hearing at 8:10 p.m. after calling witness 156. Many names or numbers had been called earlier, without anyone responding. I think about 100 people testified, between the two rooms where testimony actually was taken, but many chose to leave written testimony before going off to dinner or appointments.

These were people who used the system heavily -- many said they don't own cars -- so their prime objective was to avoid service cuts. Most said they were willing to accept the 10 cent surcharge as a trade for no service cuts. A smaller portion expressed concern about using money from the capital budget, which is the future of the system, to plug the hole in today's spending plan.

See other postings about Metro's options:
-- Metro board presents four budget-balancing options.
-- Jim Graham: Tap capital budget.
-- Transit coalition asks Metro to avoid cuts.
-- Rider proposes targeted fare increase.
-- Smart Growthers back fare hike, borrowing.
-- Metro rider outlines travel concerns.
-- Riders consider train lengths, service cuts
-- Riders group backs surcharge.

By Robert Thomson  |  January 27, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Transportation Politics  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metro budget  
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