Metro: Inaugural Champion, Economic Casualty?
“And special credit must go to Metro, which, in shattering its ridership records, proved once again that, no matter how long its lines or crowded its trains, it is invaluable to the life of the Washington region.”
The Washington Post, editorial, Jan. 21.
We Washingtonians just went through an inaugural week that brought three record-shattering days in a row for Metro ridership. Good planning and many extra hours put in by everyone at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), from the general manager on down to bus and rail operators, all contributed to the most successful day and week in Metro’s history.
This success comes after a year marked by accomplishment at the regional transit agency. Ridership continues to grow — in fact, 18 of the top 20 all-time high ridership days have occurred in the past 12 months. Even as more demands are being placed on the system, the quality and reliability of Metro’s service is up across the board.
And yet, in the midst of this demand and demonstrable progress in improving its performance, WMATA may be forced to slash service for the first time [Metro, Jan. 25]. Thanks to the national economic crisis, Metro’s board of directors has been presented with a budget proposal for the next fiscal year that would cut almost 900 positions, or about 8 percent of the workforce, to close a budget gap of more than $170 million.
Anticipating a freeze in subsidies from the supporting governments, Metro General Manager John Catoe has already moved to reduce administrative costs, but with the rise in cost of many nondiscretionary items (for example, $44 million in pension costs stemming from stock market losses), the sheer magnitude of the problem implies real and substantial reduction in service levels. On the menu for the first time are reductions in bus routes, in hours of operation of rail service, and the closing of some station entrances.
Unfortunately, the stimulus legislation Congress is considering would do little for Metro’s budget problem. The bill moving through Congress is largely aimed at capital projects, which are certainly very important to the future of the region. It will be difficult to explain the logic of working on expansion while slashing existing service, especially if the quality of that service declines. And, it is simply not reasonable to expect WMATA to meet continually growing demand, and maintain the high quality of service recently achieved, with a shrinking workforce and diminished resources.
If service levels are to be maintained, additional revenue will have to be found, either from increased state and local government subsidies, federal aid, or Metro’s riders. Inauguration Day indeed showed the value — and potential — of Metro to our region. It would be tragic if it were now allowed to fall into decline, a victim of the (hopefully temporary) financial storm.
The writer is a member of the Arlington County Board and chairman of the WMATA Board of Directors.
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