Metro Bypasses Congress, Looks to States to Plug Funding Gap

Fare hikes, service cuts ruled out to address $275 million shortfall

A man waits for a Metro train at the Gallery Place-Chinatown stop. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A man waits for a Metro train at the Gallery Place-Chinatown stop. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 13, 2016 at 4:29pm

The Washington Metro is facing a $275 million shortfall in its operating budget and will likely look to the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to fill that hole before asking for more federal government assistance.

That was the assessment of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board Chairman Jack Evans at a Thursday board meeting. Evans categorically rejected any plan to cover the shortfall by reducing services, increasing fares or shifting funds from Federal Transit Administration grants. Instead, Evans said, local jurisdictions — the District of Columbia and its two adjacent states — must cover the gap with a subsidy.

“If you want Metro, you’ve got to pay for Metro,” Evans said.

[Senators take Metro, too]

The federal government doesn’t cover operating costs of any transit system, and its contributions to Metro — $150 million in the fiscal 2016 budget and the one proposed for fiscal 2017 — are meant to be spent on construction and preventive maintenance.

Though not a formal budget proposal, the Metro staff advanced possible plans that would find equal savings from cutting service, raising fares, receiving greater government subsidies and transferring FTA grants to cover operating expenses.

But Congress has warned Metro not to use FTA grants for anything other than construction and preventive maintenance. Lawmakers outlined their position in a House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Committee report earlier this year, saying they could reduce the $150 million annual line item if Metro used the money inappropriately.

“The Committee will view those budgetary shifts as a lack of commitment to the spirit in which these … funds were provided and the Committee will reconsider its financial contributions accordingly,” the report said.

Evans said he would not ask lawmakers to allow FTA grants to be spent on operations. He agreed that the money should be spent on capital projects.

[Metro to Nats Fans: You’re Out!]

The $275 million deficit resulted from $216 million in increased costs, including $100 million for preventive maintenance, and $59 million in declining revenue stemming from a reduction in passengers, Metro’s chief financial officer Dennis Anosike told board members. Fiscal year 2018 could see another 9 percent to 10 percent decrease in passengers, a loss even greater than earlier projections, Anosike said.

According to Metro, system-wide ridership is down 11 percent to 15 percent since the 10-month maintenance project began, but it is unclear how much of that is due to the project itself, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told reporters after the meeting.

“It’s had an impact on ridership, for sure,” Wiedefeld said.

But other factors, including ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft, employers encouraging employees to work remotely, and other alternatives could also be contributing to falling ridership, he said.

The large-scale maintenance program, known as SafeTrack, is intended to fit three years’ worth of repairs into less than a year. Metro broke up the project into 15 phases, where sections of all six of Metro’s rail lines are shut down or service is limited for days or weeks at a time.

[Metro Prepared for Longest Maintenance Surge]

SafeTrack manager Laura Mason told the board that statistics show that passengers return to the Metro one or two months after a work phase is finished. And despite worries, including from WMATA board member Robert C. Lauby, that riders would not return once the program ended, Wiedefeld said the system’s only chance to re-attract disillusioned customers is to improve reliability.

“What we can control is the reliability of the cars and the reliability of the track,” Wiedefeld said. “And that’s what we’re focused on.”