Last week, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul Wiedefeld released his operating budget proposal to WMATA’s board of directors and the public. As expected, it seeks to close a shortfall estimated at $275 to $290 million.
Precipitously dropping ridership, general expense growth and the cost of the ongoing maintenance and improvement efforts initiated by the new GM have brought us to the brink of difficult financial decisions. Wiedefeld’s proposal includes a mix of fare hikes, service reductions, expense cuts, jurisdictional subsidy increases and a transfer of federal capital grants to the operating budget.
In particular, the budget proposes to raise bus fares from $1.75 to $2 per trip. Additionally, it would increase all peak rail fares by 10 cents per trip and all non-peak rail fares by 25 cents. Metro Access fares would be maintained at twice the fastest fixed-route alternate, but the top rate would rise to $6.50.
On the service side, his proposal would increase service headways on all rail lines to eight minutes during peak hours, versus six minutes today, and further reduce the frequency of trains during non-peak hours. It would also eliminate some of the most inefficient bus routes and return some non-regional routes to the jurisdictions.
I have made my position on the budget clear: fare increases are a bad idea. In a time of declining ridership and lack of confidence in our regional transit system, we should be working tirelessly to win riders back. Wiedefeld is doing that through his efforts to fix the system. The governments of the region need to support him by increasing their jurisdictional subsidies to prevent fare increases.
Public transportation is like schools, police and other public services. It’s not a business and it’s not a luxury (although the billions of dollars of increased tax assessments Metro has created for the region’s governments could be called a luxury).
We all help pay for schools even if we don’t have children in the education system. We do so because it’s a public good, benefiting our entire society. Many of us don’t ride public transportation, but we pay for it because it’s critical to the economic and social well being of our region. That’s why it should be paid for by the jurisdictions, not just by the riders.
The District of Columbia government is willing — and able — to increase our jurisdictional contribution to avoid fare hikes, service cuts and the use of capital money to balance the operating budget, a contrivance that flies in the face of sound public budgeting.
My job, and, more importantly, the job of the population of the entire region, is to convince elected officials in Maryland and Virginia that funding Metro is a key element in the future growth and prosperity of our region. Because if Metro doesn’t work, nothing does.