Metro should start publicly discussing next year's budget now
Riders packed Friday's Metro hearing, urging Metro to consider other alternatives to bus service cuts. Unfortunately for riders, the Board pre-rejected most of the alternatives before involving the public at all, and compressed the period for public involvement into a single week of hearings and less than a month in all. Next year, Metro will face a similar or even larger gap, and will surely have to raise fares. We need a better process that lets riders participate earlier and debate more alternatives.
MetroRiders.org, a group of transit advocates in the Washington region, sent the Board a letter last week arguing these points. The letter doesn't try to address the upcoming fiscal year that begins this June, because Metro is out of options. The Board still could transfer stimulus capital dollars to close the budget gap, but that would also be a controversial move, potentially robbing the system of needed maintenance. Meanwhile, the Board only offered one option for public hearings, and it's too late in the year to still hold hearings on any other potential cuts.
In fact, we never even heard most of the options. The Joint Coordinating Committee, composed of staff of member jurisdictions, created a report listing possible service cuts and how much we'd save by each. But except for a leak to the Post's Lena Sun, we never got to see that report. The Board also rejected all other options before asking the riders what they thought. The DC delegation's veto of a
10 5-cent across-the-board fare increase was the most widely reported, but it wasn't the only option that never made it to hearings. Increasing rail headways, closing mezzanines off-peak on stations with multiple entrances, and market rate parking are also off the table.
The best option of all, greater contributions by the member jurisdictions, was ruled out even earlier (though DC and Virginia did ultimately come up with more). The MetroRiders.org letter says, "Months ago the Contributing Jurisdictions signaled to WMATA that they did not want to increase their FY'10 operating budget subsidy totals to WMATA above the FY'09 level ($535 million) and this decision (without public input) was included in the WMATA General Manager's proposed budget as a 'given.'"
Next year, Metro will inevitably have to raise fares. Riders are already unhappy with the process this year, when the vast majority of riders won't see any substantial effect. When every rider will be paying more next year, they'll be even more upset if the Board waits until the last minute and then presents only one option. We can't do that again.
As soon as Metro finalizes its budget for the upcoming year (starting June 2009), they should immediately begin soliciting input on the following year's budget. They should release the staff's latest budget projections, and estimate what types of fare increases and/or service adjustments could close that gap. Finally, MetroRiders.org recommends they hold three "town hall" meetings, spread throughout the year. Metro should make it a regular practice every year to begin budget discussions early and hold periodic town halls. That way, riders will be able to weigh in early, and lobby their local governments to increase their contributions and protect this transportation service that's so vital to our region's economic prosperity and greatness.
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