WASHINGTON – Metro officials tabled proposed fare increases and service cuts last week after more than a dozen people complained the proposal would jeopardize local businesses and economic growth.
During the span of an hour, officials heard from representatives of the region’s business community, riders with disabilities, smart-growth advocates and representatives of minority communities. All who testified opposed service cuts or a fare increase.
In November, Metro’s Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike proposed a nearly $2 billion operating budget for fiscal 2016 beginning July 1. The budget called for $919 million in financial subsidies from eight counties and cities that help pay to keep the Metro in service – $140 million more in subsidies than fiscal 2015 called for. Local jurisdictions initially refused to pay the hefty increase.
But the additional $140 million has to come from somewhere, so the Metro’s financial committee looked into late night service cuts and 10 cent fare increases as potential options.
But locals told Metro officials service cuts and fare increases could prevent those who most need the rail system from using it.
“I wouldn’t be able to ride metro if you increase fares,” said Carmen Leon, an Arlington County resident who volunteers at a community center, through a translator. “Please consider other sources, other solutions because people like myself and other Latinos work hard and they need the bus and the metro to get to work. They don’t have enough, because they don’t earn a lot of money.”
Phil Pogner, a 70-year-old Metro Access rider from Arlington, Va., said fare increases could prevent those who use Metro Access from being able to afford the service as many disabled riders are on fixed incomes.
The current structure of Metro Access charges riders twice the regular metro fare rate, so Metro Access riders would potentially face a 20 cent increase.
“On behalf of those people that are disabled, please do not cut service,” said Metro Access rider and Fairfax, Va. resident Marisa Laios. Laios, restricted to a mechanical wheel chair due to her cerebral palsy, had to have an assistant hold the microphone for her to speak. “Do not make it harder for disabled people to get around to where they need to.”
Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, referred to the Metro as the region’s “crown jewel.”
Dinegar said Metro is vital to the economic success of the region and many riders use it to get the area’s sports and commerce venues. Dinegar also said these short-term budget solutions could have long-term ramifications for the area’s economic strength.
“I would hold off on the fare increase and make the case to the jurisdictions for the additional funds,” Dinegar said.
After almost two hours of testimony and discussion, the board decided to take two weeks to see if they could come up with options to convince the jurisdictions to pay.
“The stakes are very high and we have to find a solution,” said Mortimer L. Downey, the chairman of the board’s finance committee. “We need to go back to the decision-makers and say ‘We heard something can be done. Are you ready to be part of the solution?’”
Currently Maryland seems the least willing to pay the increased subsidies.
Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland on the board, said a new administration in place might limit what the state can contribute.
The district and Virginia seem to be on board as D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents the district on the panel, said the city is willing to pay whatever it takes to avoid service cuts or fare hikes.
Board member Mary Hynes, who also chairs the Arlington County Board, said her jurisdiction is also ready to pay the most it can to avoid service cuts and fare hikes.
Metro interim General Manager Jack Requa said challenges this new budget has introduced can be avoided if the board can get Maryland comfortable with participating at the same level as the district and Virginia.