Author: Jack Smith

Metro funding proposed from D.C., Maryland, Virginia sales tax, outsourcing of union jobs

The chairman of Metro’s board of directors is hailing General Manger Paul Wiedefeld’s call for dedicated funding for long-term repairs and lower labor costs for the troubled transit system, but the union representing most Metro workers said it is “bad for the region.”

Board Chairman Jack Evans endorsed an idea for a regional 1 percent sales tax on the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. jurisdictions serviced by Metro to secure a $500 million-a-year funding stream for the nation’s second-busiest mass transit system.

“Everyone in the region has a vested interest in Metro,” Mr. Evans, who also serves on the D.C. Council, said during Thursday’s board meeting.

However, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 said any attempt to lower labor costs by hiring contractors to fill union jobs would “demoralize the workforce in a race to the bottom.”

Late Wednesday, Mr. Wiedefeld released a slate of proposed changes aimed at saving the cash-strapped subway system from financial and operational ruin. According to the 10-year plan in his comprehensive report, the general manager said Metro needs a new business model and $15.5 billion over the next decade to remain “safe, reliable and affordable.”

“While Metro has $25 billion in total unfunded capital needs, WMATA will require $15.5 billion of this amount over the next 10 years for critical capital projects,” the report says, using the acronym for the agency’s full name, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

That lack of capital funding over the decades has left the system in disrepair and forced Metro officials last year to pursue a systemwide rehabilitation that has been the bane of riders trying to get around the region.

Mr. Wiedefeld proposed that regional leaders find an annual $500 million stream of dedicated funding for long-term capital repairs to the system. He noted that Metro is still one of the only major American transit systems without dedicated funding for capital repairs. But he stopped short of telling Maryland, Virginia and the District how to come up with that money.

Mr. Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and Metro Board chairman, said the District’s chief financial officer had determined that a regional 1 percent sales tax in each jurisdiction Metro serves would generate $500 million to $700 million a year.

That proposed tax would have to be approved by the county governments in Virginia and Maryland, as well as the District. The sales tax idea, which has been floated before, has generally not been well-received in Virginia.

Mr. Evans acknowledged that the tax idea could generate considerable grumbling in Virginia but said complainers should think about the region as a whole and the benefits of Metro. The system is a boon for the regional economy with housing developments, restaurants and other businesses being built near stations.

“It is an economic driver,” he said of the transit system.

Mr. Wiedefeld also is hoping to reduce worker costs by switching from a pension to a defined contribution program, such as a 401(k), and by opening some jobs to nonunion employees.

Metro is facing a $1 billion unfunded pension liability as well as $1.8 billion in other retiree benefits.

The proposed use of contractors for certain projects instead of union workers raised the ire of ATU Local 689, which represents more than 12,000 Metrobus and Metrorail workers.

Paul Wiedefeld’s proposal for WMATA is bad for riders, bad for workers and bad for the region,” the union said. “Instead of offering real proposals to improve the system and win riders back, Wiedefeld has, once again, pitted riders against workers in an attempt to balance the agency’s budget on the back of WMATA’s hardworking employees.”

The union said outsourcing some Metro jobs would make the system less safe, less reliable and more costly, and that Mr. Wiedefeld has not been responsive to worker needs.

“Instead of opening a dialogue with WMATA’s workforce on how to improve service and fix the system, the general manager has chosen to go around our negotiated contract and bargain in bad faith through the media,” the statement said.

But Mr. Evans said even the unions need to cede something to make Metro work again.

“What they have to recognize is that everybody’s got to give something,” he said. “The alternative is no system.”

The plan also proposes a rainy-day fund equal to 10 percent of the system’s annual $1.8 billion operating budget for emergencies such as severe weather. It also would cap the operating budget increase at 3 percent as a way to balance out the extra funding needed in the capital budget.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a local group pushing for more transit-oriented development, applauded the plan.

“The general manager’s plan is the best we’ve seen to date,” said Stewart Schwartz, the group’s executive director. “His statement is bluntly honest about the situation and we generally endorse his proposals, although we will need more information about some of them.”

Mr. Schwartz said the honesty of Mr. Wiedefeld’s plan “represents our best opportunity to develop shared facts and understanding about the challenges and best fixes for the system in time for legislative action on funding next year.”

The group also said regional leaders need to step up and find more money for long-term repairs.

“For too long, our elected officials haven’t made Metro’s state of good repair needs a priority — year after year approving a regional transportation plan without fully funding Metro capital needs,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Metro is the backbone of our transportation network and regional economy and, as such, merits the funding needed to fully restore the system.”

Union dissent highlights difficulty of enacting Wiedefeld’s rescue plan for Metro

General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s ambitious rescue plan for Metro drew a generally positive response Thursday, but a bitter dissent from the agency’s largest union was a sign of the formidable obstacles he faces.

Wiedefeld’s recommendations are “bad for riders, bad for workers and bad for the region,” Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 said in a statement. The union, which represents about 9,200 Metro workers, said Wiedefeld’s plans to outsource services and provide less-generous pensions to future hires aim “to balance the agency’s budget on the back of [Metro’s] hard-working employees.”

Overall, however, elected officials, transit advocates and business groups praised Wiedefeld for offering what many called a “reasonable” plan that deals head-on with the tough challenges facing the transit agency.

Although many disagreed with individual details, and the region’s top Republican officials were distinctly skeptical, most welcomed Wiedefeld’s call for new taxes or other dedicated sources of funding to channel an additional $500 million a year to Metro. The money would go to buy new rail cars, buses and other equipment, and perform the maintenance necessary to restore service quality after decades of underinvestment.

“This proposal appears to be a realistic and responsible contribution to the regional discussion about how best to fix Metro,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said.

Wiedefeld’s plan “is the best we’ve seen to date,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth. “His statement is bluntly honest about the situation, and we generally endorse his proposals.”

Despite the applause, no one underestimated the political difficulty of extracting union concessions and winning support for higher taxes from multiple jurisdictions in the District, Virginia and Maryland. Many politicians and analysts said it will be necessary to go further than Wiedefeld’s proposals, by restructuring the Metro board of directors and adopting other reforms in how the agency is governed.

“I think you need some governance changes to show that the people who will be spending the money will be doing a good job,” said Maryland state Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), co-chairman of a work group of Annapolis legislators focused on Metro issues.

Business groups such as the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Federal City Council, and politicians have proposed to shrink the 16-member Metro board and apply new membership requirements to streamline the panel’s work.

“Governance changes are necessary to enable Paul [Wiedefeld] to make the changes necessary to return Metro to the world-class system it once was,” said Terry D. McAllister, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Wiedefeld said it wasn’t appropriate for him to propose reforming the governance structure above him. But he also expressed concern that such changes — which would require amending the Metro Compact, or governing document — could delay agreement on urgently needed funding.

“If we get into a whole thrashing of some of those issues, I just think it could drag out for years. I don’t think we have years,” Wiedefeld said.

Thursday morning, after having spent the previous 24 hours briefing more than 50 government officials and other regional leaders about his plan, Wiedefeld readily acknowledged the difficulty of his task.

“It’s going to be an extremely heavy lift,” he said at a news conference.

But Wiedefeld said he was optimistic that the region could overcome its differences on taxes, labor relations and governance because so many people see the need to save the transit system.

“I think the agreement, if you step back, is that they all want to try to do something to get this right. So that’s a good place to start,” Wiedefeld said.

Wiedefeld is about to launch meetings with Metro staffers, elected officials and private groups around the region to explain his plan further and try to win support.

Described in a six-page “White Paper” and 27-page PowerPoint presentation, the proposal explains why Metro needs $15.5 billion in investment over the next 10 years — an average increase of nearly 30 percent from its previous plan — to keep the system safe and reliable.

To allay concern that Metro spending is headed out of control, Wiedefeld also proposed to cap the annual growth in jurisdictions’ annual contributions for operations and investments at 3 percent. That’s separate from the new $500 million capital fund and a new $26 million “rainy day” fund Wiedefeld has proposed.

In a related effort to hold down costs, Wiedefeld proposed major concessions by Metro’s unionized workforce. A key part of the plan is to amend a federal arbitration law to strengthen management’s position in contract disputes.

His proposal to outsource operations — a form of privatization — drew particular opposition from unions. As an example, Wiedefeld suggested Metro’s unions might have to compete with private contractors for jobs on the second phase of the Silver Line, which is scheduled to open in 2020.

OPEIU Local 2, which represents many of Metro’s IT staff, engineers and contract administrators, doubted the plan would achieve significant savings. It also expressed concern that the quality of work would decline.

“He [Wiedefeld] thinks that contracting is a way to save money,” said Eric Starin, the union’s chief steward at Metro. “There might be rare incidents where that is true, but there are also an awful lot of incidents where it costs more money to contract work out.”

Wiedefeld’s privatization plan mirrors a similar strategy employed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston. In the past year, the MBTA has outsourced warehouse and money-room operations, efforts that are projected to save an estimated $177 million over the next 10 years.

The agency also used threats of privatization to reach a new, money-saving contract deal with one of its biggest unions. Brian Shortsleeve, MBTA chief administrator and acting general manager, said he met with Wiedefeld this year to offer advice on how to employ the same strategies in Washington.

Republican lawmakers in Congress and the Virginia General Assembly — and some Democrats in the region — have said Metro must curb labor costs before they would be willing to consider giving the agency more money.

Wiedefeld needs congressional support to extend the program under which the federal government grants Metro $150 million a year — and the three local jurisdictions match it — for investments.

But his plan got off to a rough start with a key House member, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), the only Republican in the local delegation in the GOP-controlled Congress. She complained Wednesday that she didn’t receive an adequate briefing about Wiedefeld’s plan, saying she heard only about the “huge price tag.”

Wiedefeld tried to patch things up Thursday, saying he already planned to meet with Comstock next week.

“I will work with her very closely to get her more comfortable with at least understanding what we’re trying to do,” Wiedefeld said.

Comstock said Thursday she still lacked enough information to comment about the specifics of Wiedefeld’s plan.
“I have asked for far more details on Metro’s operating and capital costs and the justifications for them than we have received to date,” Comstock said in a statement.

Wiedefeld’s plan also drew a tepid response from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Hogan’s office said it had not seen details of the plan but reiterated the governor’s position that it is up to local leaders in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties to pursue dedicated funding if they choose.

“A statewide tax is a nonstarter,” said Amelia Chasse, a Hogan spokeswoman. “One question our administration does have is why this proposed plan does not call for an increase in federal funding, when approximately 40 percent of Metrorail riders are federal employees.”

Elected officials will be pressing for abundant details about Metro’s spending before supporting taxes or other dedicated funding.

“We need to know, for sure, what the cost is for what,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova (D) said. “We need to be assured that labor issues have been addressed. We also need to know that governance issues have been addressed.”

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said such questions would be considered by a panel headed by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, which is to study Metro and make recommendations in the fall.

Wiedefeld’s plan “gives us a very, very good basis to make a political case along with the review that Secretary LaHood’s doing,” Layne said.

Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans stressed that there will be political cost for anyone who resists making concessions to make the plan work.

“Nobody’s going to look kindly on any party that says, ‘I’m not compromising,’ ” Evans said. “I think they’re going to find themselves left out in the woods.”

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D.C. wants employers to pay workers not to drive to work

D.C. officials and transit advocates are pursuing a shift in the way employers offer commuting benefits to encourage more biking, walking and transit over solo driving.

A D.C. Council proposal would require employers who provide their employees with free or subsidized parking to give them the choice to cash out. With that option, workers would be more likely to ditch the car for a more sustainable mode of travel to work, officials say.

“I can much more easily rationalize hopping in my car and driving downtown when I got a free parking spot,” said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), a lead sponsor of the bill. “But if my employer says, we are going to give you a parking spot or we can give you transit benefits or cash if you bike to work, then I have the flexibility to make the choice that is best for me.”

The change, he said, would address a fairness issue for the workers who sometimes turn down a valuable perk because they don’t drive or who are forced to take it because otherwise they can’t get the benefit any other way.

The Transportation Benefits Equity Amendment Act of 2017 is one response to growing criticism that historically commuter benefits for drivers are better than those available to people who take other modes of transportation. For instance, a few years ago, transit agencies including Metro fought for parity in transit and parking in the federal commuter benefits program, which three years ago gave commuters the option to spend up to $130 on public transit pre-tax vs. $250 for parking. That started to change in 2015, and this year the cap for the transit benefit and the parking benefit is $255 per month.

Advocates for flexible benefits cite research suggesting that traffic congestion is associated with perks, such as free parking, and that financial incentives for non-solo drivers could help cities move toward more diverse commuting.

In the District, experts say a parking cash-out program could be part of the equation to achieve 75 percent of all trips on sustainable transportation, and it would benefit city residents the most because they are more likely to have easy access to other travel options, such as bikeshare, bus and Metro.

About 40 percent of D.C. residents drive to work, according to data from the District Department of Transportation, while 39 percent take transit, 15 percent walk and 6 percent bike.

“It reduces traffic and pollution, incentivizes a healthier commute, gives workers flexibility in their commutes, and is paid for with a parking space that’s not needed,” Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth said of the legislation.

In 2014, the District joined New York and San Francisco in passing a law requiring employers with 20 or more employees to offer commuter benefits, giving thousands of workers access to the federal tax break to pay for transit and parking. Supporters say the new proposal would take the city a step further by requiring companies who subsidize parking spaces to offer an equivalent benefit to non-drivers.

It is unclear how many companies offer free or subsidized parking, but a city survey of 191 employers in 2016 found that 34 percent offer free parking and an additional 18 percent offer a parking subsidy, according to DDOT. Free parking is the most common fringe benefit to employees across the country and in many cases employers offer free parking or nothing.

“People who walk or ride the bus get nothing. It is unfair,” said Donald Shoup, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, and author of “The High Cost of Free Parking”.

Research suggests that having access to subsidized parking ranks high in someone’s decision to drive to work, he said.  A survey of 5,000 commuters and their employers in downtown Los Angeles showed that free parking at work increased the number of cars driven to work by 34 percent, he said

“Employer-paid parking is an invitation to drive to work alone,” he said “The cash option rewards commuters who don’t drive to work alone. Parking cash-out therefore increases the share of commuters who carpool, ride public transit, walk, or bike to work.”

In California, legislation enacted in 1992 requires that employers with 50 or more employees who offer free parking must also give workers the option to take an equivalent cash allowance instead. But the law did not set any penalties for non-compliance.

As companies become more aware of the rule, Shoup said, they are realizing the benefits. Studies of firms in Southern California that offer parking cash-outs found the share of commuters who drove to work alone fell from 76 percent before the cash option to 63 percent afterward, he said. For every 100 commuters offered the cash option, 13 solo drivers shifted to another travel mode, he said.

That’s the kind of response the District is hoping for with its proposal. But it is unclear how the business community would respond. Supporters say they don’t anticipate any change for businesses  beyond administrative.

“When a commuter takes the cash allowance instead of free parking, the employer saves the cash paid for a parking space,” explained Shoup, who was instrumental in the creation of California’s parking cash-out law. “The employer’s avoided parking subsidy directly funds the commuter’s cash allowance, so there is no net cost to the employer when a commuter forgoes the free parking and takes the cash.”

The D.C. “cash-out law” would not prohibit or discourage employer-paid parking. It would simply require that an employer who offers to pay for parking for employees who drive to work also offer to pay the same amount to those who don’t. The District would be the first major city to have an enforceable program if the bill passes.

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Metro Board Approves Fare Hikes, Service Cuts Effective July 1

Despite already plummeting ridership, Metro’s board on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a package of fare hikes and rail and bus service cuts. Final approval of the austerity budget, little more than a formality, is expected on March 23. The changes will take effect July 1.

Base rail fares will go up 10 cents for rush hour and 25 cents for off-peak travel times. The maximum rail fare will reach $6. Bus fares are increasing by 25 cents to $2, but the weekly bus-only pass will remain at $17.50, a break for low income commuters.

Fares for both rail and bus service will be going up under Metro's new budget.

Fares for both rail and bus service will be going up under Metro’s new budget.

The wait for rush-hour trains will grow to eight minutes at outlying stations across all six Metro lines; more trains in the system’s core will drop the wait times to three to four minutes closer to the system’s core. At off-peak hours, trains will continue to run at 12-minute intervals.

Supporters of general manager Paul Wiedefeld’s “reality check” budget voted yes reluctantly because riders have been fleeing the system in droves and the remaining loyal customers will now be asked to pay more for fewer trains and buses. Only one board member, Malcolm Augustine of Prince George’s County, voted no, venting his disgust in the process.

“This is basic economics. You’re raising the price. You’ll lose riders,” Augustine said. “It’s just a bad business decision.”

But asking commuters to share the pain is a gamble the transit authority must take, said Christian Dorsey, who represents Arlington.

“This board had to take the responsible step and do what good governance institutions do, which is to make these difficult choices,” Dorsey said. “The process of arriving where we are today has been to try to mitigate the pain in ways that are sensible. No one likes raising fares, but I think overall the fare increases are necessary.”

Through a series of amendments, the board voted to restore bus routes that were on the chopping block in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, but not all will be spared. Metro received thousands of public comments through surveys and other means, many of which pleaded for the restoration of bus service in areas with few, if any, transportation alternatives.

Bus line changes

Metro’s average weekday rail ridership is at its lowest level since 2003, in part because the SafeTrack reconstruction effort has severely disrupted the timely arrival of trains. Bus ridership is also dropping, although customer surveys show bus riders are generally more satisfied with service levels than people who take the train.

Even as they approved the $1.8 billion operating budget, board members expressed a sense that Metro is in a danger zone from which it may not emerge.

In remarks to reporters, Wiedefeld said the system is not heading toward the so-called transit death spiral, a term used to describe an irreparable loss of riders fueled by higher prices and less robust service.

“The way that we bring back ridership is through basically more reliable service,” said Wiedefeld, who has launched multiple initiatives to repair aging track infrastructure and railcars.

By running fewer trains, Metro believes it can deliver on timely service that is “right sized” for dwindling riders. But some analysts say this approach is akin to managing the system’s demise, not turning it around.

“I think there is something wrong with the idea that riders have to share in the sacrifice to close the budget gap,” said Steven Higashide, a senior analyst at Transit Center, a New York-based research foundation. In his view, Metro is in a death spiral.“Riders have already been sacrificing for years, and it is now at a point where many are no longer willing to sacrifice and they are fleeing the system,” he said.

The new rush hour headway of eight minutes at outlying rail stations makes Metro an outlier, Higashide said, compared to most major mass transit systems across the nation.

“In cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York it’s not unheard of to wait eight or even ten minutes during the early rush at 5 or 6 in the morning, but most transit customers in those cities aren’t going to be waiting more than five or six minutes for a train at the height of the rush,” he said.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a pro-transit group, said Metro’s contributing jurisdictions should have ponied more money — beyond the $130 million they agreed to add to Metro’s budget — to avoid fare hikes and service cuts. The regional governments’ latest additions to Metro bring subsidy to close to $1 billion in a $1.8 billion operating budget.

“The data has shown over and over again that the way to get people riding transit is frequent, reliable service. Fare hikes and service cuts are neither frequent nor reliable service,” said Aimee Custis, the group’s deputy director.

“The money should be coming the local jurisdictions that are part of the WMATA compact,” Custis added.

But Wiedefeld said the jurisdictions could only be asked to cover part of the shortfall.

“The jurisdictions have lots of other financial issues they are dealing with, and I had to take that under consideration,” Wiedefeld said.

Today’s vote comes close to capping one of the most difficult budget seasons in memory, as Metro was forced to close a projected $290 million shortfall. The general manager is in the process of cutting the workforce by 1,000 positions and cracking down on absenteeism, but in the end it proved impossible to completely avoid raising fares for the first time in three years.

Moreover, Metro’s financial problems will not be erased through a single austerity budget. At this time next year, the general manager and board expect to grapple with another massive shortfall because ridership is not expected to rapidly recover.

When asked where he will find the money, Wiedefeld declined to offer a specific solution.

“We are going to work through it with the region to deal with those issues. We have to,” he said.

Establishing dedicated funding through a new, regional sales tax is one of the most commonly discussed solutions to Metro’s structural operating deficit and long-term capital needs – at least when it comes to revenue.
When it comes to Metro’s growing labor expenses, some controversial ideas are gaining traction amid suburban jurisdictions wary of escalating subsides and among lawmakers in Annapolis and Richmond, namely privatizing aspects of WMATA’s maintenance and operations.

But Wiedefeld is not ready to endorse privatization yet.

“I am not there yet, but I think we have to, as we start to look to future of funding this, take a broad look at all aspects of the business,” he said.

Any proposal to privatize Metro would run into ferocious opposition from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents 8,500 front line employees. The union is currently negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with management, and has condemned Wiedefeld’s budget proposal.


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Metro committee approves service cuts, fare hikes

WASHINGTON — Metro’s Finance Committee approved fare increases and service cuts Thursday and advanced the transit agency’s budget to the full board.

The committee also restored some bus service in D.C., Maryland and Virginia that had been slated to be cut.

The plan would reduce rush-hour service. Trains would leave the end of the lines every eight minutes rather than every six minutes that current train schedules call for. It would also raise rush-hour fares by 10 cents and off-peak fares by 25 cents.

In addition, the service change would increase scheduled rush-hour service on the Blue Line from every 12 minutes today to every eight minutes by cutting the Yellow Line “Rush Plus” service between Franconia-Springfield and Greenbelt.

The changes would raise bus fares by 25 cents.

A final budget vote by the Metro Board is expected March 23. If the board approves the plan, the fare hikes — which would begin around July 1 — would be Metro’s first fare increase in three years.

A number of transit advocacy groups worry that the combination of fare increases and service cuts could cut people off from crucial transportation and dissuade other riders from using the system.

“While we understand the fiscal crisis the agency faces, and the General Manager’s intention to close the gap by sharing the burden between staff, riders, and jurisdictions, further fare hikes and service cuts will only exacerbate ridership declines and financial challenges,” wrote Stewart Schwartz, Coalition for Smarter Growth’s executive director, in a letter to the Metro Board last month.

“We urge the Board and leaders in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia to come together and close 100 percent of Metro’s operating gap with jurisdictional funding.”

And Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, said in a statement that the budget plan and the risk of additional cuts next year illustrate the need for a new regional, dedicated funding source for Metro.

“We stand with the riding public and continue to encourage the leadership at WMATA to reject this death spiral budget,” the union said.

The union and Metro have been squaring off in contract talks, which have spilled out into vocal public disputes since late last year.

Theses bus route changes were included in the budget plan the committee passed on Thursday:

Airport bus fares for the B30 and 5A would rise to $7.50 (other bus fares would still rise 25 cents rather than 50 cents).

In D.C., no bus routes would be eliminated or changed.

In Maryland, the C11 and C13 Clinton routes would run less often. The B30 to BWI-Marshall Airport would only run once an hour and only on weekdays.

The J5 bus between Silver Spring and Twinbrook would be eliminated. The H11, H12 and H13 between Marlow Heights and Temple Hills would run less often.

The J7 and J9 I-270 Express Lines would continue until October 2017. The T2 River Road line would run less often. The W19 Indian Head Express would be eliminated.

The P17, P18 and P19 Oxon Hill-Fort Washington lines and the W13 and W14 Bock Road lines would now end at the Southern Avenue Metro Station. The Z7 Laurel-Burtonsville Express would run less frequently.

In Virginia, routes 18R and 18S would be eliminated, but some service would be added to Route 18P to Burke Centre.

Route 28X would be eliminated, but some service would be added on Route 28A, which also travels Leesburg Pike.

Route 15K and 15L would serve East Falls Church, not Rosslyn Metro.

The Route 5A bus to Dulles International Airport would run less frequently. Route 7X would be eliminated, but some service would be added between Lincolnia and Pentagon on route 7W. Route 13Y service between Reagan National Airport and Union Station on weekend mornings would be eliminated.

Route 2T between Tysons Corner and Dunn Loring would be eliminated. Routes 17A and 17F to Kings Park would be eliminated with some additional service on a newly truncated route 17B (Route 17M would also remain in service).

Richmond Highway Express REX buses would run less frequently, but on an extended route. And the 2B Fair Oaks-Jermantown Road Line would run less frequently at rush hour.

Bus service changes removed from the budget plan:

In Maryland, the J1, J2, J3 Bethesda-Silver Spring line would remain in service as would the C8 College Park-White Flint Line and the F1 and F2 Chillum Road Line and the T14 Rhode Island Avenue-New Carrollton Line.

In Virginia, Route 3T in Pimmit Hills would remain in service, Route 1C Fair Oaks-Fairfax Boulevard Line would remain in service, as would the 16X Columbia Pike-Federal Triangle express route. Routes 16G, 16H and 16K would also maintain full service levels.


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Metro board advances fare hikes and service cuts, advocates warn ridership decline will worsen

The Metro board finance committee voted Thursday to raise fares for bus and rail riders, reduce train frequencies and slash some bus routes, advancing the agency’s austerity budget to a final vote — but not before slipping in three last-minute amendments to preserve a slew of bus lines that were slated for cancellation or reduction.

Board members approved the $1.8 billion operating budget in the face of numerous concerns, chiefly: whether fare hikes and fewer trains would accelerate a ridership decline that has driven the nation’s second-busiest subway into financial distress.

Metro is facing a $290 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year, and ridership and parking revenue losses — exacerbated by the year-long SafeTrack maintenance program — make up about a third of the shortfall. As board members cautiously advanced the spending plan, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld defended the cuts, which have drawn the ire of riders and transit advocates.

“The way that we bring back ridership is through basically more reliable service,” Wiedefeld said at a news conference after the board meeting. “We have not been able to deliver what we said we were going to deliver. So I think it’s more important to the customer [to] ‘just tell me what I’ve got and then deliver it.’ ”

Rail ridership was down 12 percent compared with a year earlier, the latest figures showed, and has fallen by about 100,000 trips from its 2009 peaks. Metro estimates that the fare increases will result in a total loss of 10 million trips during the 2018 fiscal year. But even with the ridership loss, Metro estimates the fare increase will boost revenue by $21 million.

Rush-hour rail fares would increase by a dime, with $2.25 as the new minimum and $6 as the maximum one-way fare. The plan increases off-peak rail and bus fares 25 cents. The frequency of trains, most of which are scheduled to arrive at least every six minutes, would be reduced to every eight minutes, with more service in the system’s core.

The full board is expected to approve the budget March 23, and the fare increases and service changes would go into effect July 1.

There was little debate over the need for drastic cuts. Wiedefeld, who has eliminated 500 jobs and is in the process of cutting 500 more, has said there are few other sources of savings left for the beleaguered transit agency.

But board member Malcolm Augustine said the fare increases and service cuts are the wrong approach. The lone dissenting vote, he worried the changes would only hasten the ridership decline.

“This is basic economics. You’re raising the price. You’ll lose riders,” he said. “That is a bad business move.”

Wiedefeld, however, called the changes a “strategy” to improve performance.

“If we provide consistent reliable service then that market will come back,” he said.

Aimee Custis, deputy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an advocacy group that promotes pro-transit policy, said it’s illogical to think riders will return with Metro offering less service.

“The thing that will eventually bring people back is frequent, reliable service, and we are headed away from that,” Custis said.

But other board members agreed with Wiedefeld, saying the measures are necessary to balance the agency’s budget.

Board member Jim Corcoran said the fare hikes will help stabilize ridership because a stable budget helps pay for safety and reliability improvements that will win back riders in the long run.

“I think this is a very good business decision to improve the product because an improved product will bring back riders,” he said.

Echoing Wiedefeld, board member Christian Dorsey said Metro could stem the ridership losses by adhering to its promised wait times.

“If we can deliver on what we say we’re putting out there, that would be an improvement,” he said.

Meanwhile, board members from the District, Maryland and Virginia scrambled to insert last-minute changes into the budget to help their constituents. The 11th-hour effort to save bus routes around the region was an about-face for the members, who arrived at the meeting with printed amendments detailing the list of bus routes that they planned to rescue from the chopping block — causing some to question whether the move was an act of long-planned political showmanship.

The District rallied to save routes B8 and B9 — the Fort Lincoln Shuttle Line — and to modify the H6, which runs between Brookland and Fort Lincoln.

Virginia board members offered several changes that they estimated would cost about $500,000 in subsidies for the year. Their list included the full restoration of the 3T in Pimmit Hills, the 1C in Fair Oaks, and the 16G/H/K/X routes that run along Columbia Pike, from Columbia Heights West to Pentagon City.

They also approved some changes to local routes meant to help serve riders affected by the cancellation of the 28X, 7X, 17A and 17F lines.

Members representing Maryland pushed an amendment restoring the following routes: T14 (between Rhode Island Avenue and New Carrollton stations), F1 and F2 (running along Chillum Road), C8 (between College Park and White Flint stations), and the J1, J2 and J3 routes (operating between Bethesda and Silver Spring stations).

Maryland representatives also persuaded the board to allow Metro to continue to operate the J7 and J9 buses through at least October. Those are express buses that run along Interstate 270.

After the meeting, finance committee chairman Michael Goldman said he believes Maryland will be able to pay the approximately $2 million necessary to retain some of those local routes, because there appears to be extra money in the subsidy appropriated by the state legislature to Metro for next year’s bus budget.

Goldman said Metro staff has been asked to come up how much it will cost to save those routes, and the state will pay for them if the cost falls within what it can afford.

“If it fits within the wiggle room, all those services could be restored,” Goldman said.

Dorsey praised the amendments for ensuring the cuts don’t adversely impact riders of Metrobus, “relatively the shining star of Metro at this point,” he said.

Augustine was afraid increasing the bus fare a quarter, to $2, would have a dramatic impact on Metrobus ridership and target low-income and minority riders.

In the original version of the fare increases proposed by Wiedefeld last fall, Metro came close to failing a Title VI analysis — a federally mandated statistical test to ensure that low-income and minority riders are not disproportionately harmed by changes to transit fares or service. Metro said Thursday that the agency’s decision to preserve the $17.50 price of a weekly bus pass was aimed at helping it steer clear of civil rights violations.

Augustine, however, pointed out that only a small percentage of Metrobus riders use the weekly bus-only pass. Following his lone ‘no’ vote, it was announced that the budget had been approved.

But a brief moment of confusion ensued when board members realized they hadn’t heard from member Corbett A. Price, who was looped in via conference call. Perhaps a sign of the general discontent with the situation, Price chimed in: “You may record my vote in favor of it, reluctantly.”


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