Feisty debates at Metro
Things got a little tense among Metro board members and staffers at Thursday morning's meeting on closing the budget gap. That's as it should be, since they are talking about how to use our fare money and our tax money to close a big budget gap while cutting back on transit services.
We're all a bit tense about that.
The session began with a presentation from Interim General Manager Richard Sarles. He offered the board members a revised version of the general manager's proposed budget, based in part on what riders said during the recent public comment period about the various options.
Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington followed up by asking Sarles who had directed him to prepare a new budget. Sarles, who has been on the job less than a month and hasn't been through this sort of thing with the Metro board, replied that he felt it was his responsibility to present one to the board based on the public comment.
"Madam chairman," Zimmerman said, directing his attention at finance committee chairman Catherine Hudgins of Fairfax, "I thought it was our job at this point to produce the budget." Hudgins and other board members took turns saying: Sure enough, but we thank the general manager for his effort and we think it was appropriate.
There were several such moments during the meeting. One involved an exchange between Jim Graham of the District and Mortimer Downey, one of the new federal representatives, about when the federal government was going to deliver the money for Metro that Congress approved.
Toward the end of the meeting, Carol Kissal, Metro's keeper of the finances, urged the board to move quickly in deciding on a fare increase so that the necessary adjustments could be made in the fare system's working parts.
Hudgins thought the board could advance this at another meeting scheduled for next Thursday. But Jim Graham said he would not be prepared to vote on a fare increase next Thursday, and won't be until he knows how all the other pieces of the budget fit in.
Sarles jumped in to say that if a decision on the fares isn't made soon, the increases may have to be postponed past the July 4 holiday. (Any fare changes are now scheduled for June 27.) By the end of the meeting, it was unclear what would happen next.
This is why the tension is important to riders:
-- Zimmerman doesn't want any service cuts and says flat out he won't vote for a budget that contains service cuts. Sarles's proposal still has about $8 million in service cuts. Zimmerman thinks there is still time to avoid cuts if the jurisdictions that fund Metro will increase their support. At the moment, Northern Virginia jurisdictions are leading the effort to raise more money. Zimmerman wants to see the same commitment from the District and Maryland -- especially Maryland.
-- Zimmerman and Graham are worried about aspects of the capital budget. Zimmerman is among the most vocal board members in opposing raids on the capital budget -- the one that pays for long-term maintenance and equipment purchases -- to close gaps in the operating budget, which does things like pay for train and bus operators, fuel and electricity. Graham thinks money can be prudently borrowed from the capital budget to avoid service cuts.
-- Graham wants to see that $150 million in capital money that the federal government promised in exchange for a regional commitment to match the sum. He thinks it will arrive too late to advance some of Metro's capital projects. Downey, whose appointment to the board was part of the deal for getting the federal money, defended the federal schedule and said it would not create a problem for Metro maintenance and repair.
-- The staff needs them to make decisions, especially about the fare increase. (It's inevitable. It's just a question of how big it is.) The final fare plan could include some things Metro has never tried, most prominently a peak of the peak fare surcharge for the very busiest times on Metrorail. The changes in signs, software and so on will take about 60 days. Board member Jeff McKay of Fairfax joined Sarles in expressing concern about getting that right. They worried aloud about people going through the fare gates on the July 4 weekend knowing they're paying a higher price but having something go wrong with the payment system. Not good for customer relations, they noted.
-- No board member favors service cuts, but all of the members were appointed by some political leader or political entity in their home jurisdiction. They have to balance calls for giving more money to Metro with the varying commitments of their jurisdictions to deliver that money.
-- Budget crises bring out issues of political geography among the board members. The suburban board members aren't crazy about the proposal to increase daily parking fees by 50 cents. The District doesn't have much Metro parking, but the idea of cutting the late-night Metrorail service on weekends -- a boon to the District's drinking establishments -- is "anathema" to Graham.
April 22, 2010; 3:15 PM ET
Categories: Metro , Transportation Politics | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, MetroAccess, Metrobus, Metrorail
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