WMATA budget deep dive, part 9: An alternate proposal
In this series, I've analyzed WMATA's proposed budget and searched for ways to close a $189.2 million gap without driving away passengers and entering a "death spiral" of fare increases and service reductions.
In my day (and often night) job I represent ATU Local 689 in political and legislative affairs. That's the union that represents most WMATA employees. Now, I will take off my union hat and try putting on John Catoe's. At 6'2", I'm a big guy, but he's even bigger. Still, I'll try to walk in his shoes.
WMATA hasn't quite found their own way on the FY 11 budget either and includes $40 million to close their budget gap that has no real funding source. In addition, area governments face historic deficits of their own. Any additional aid from the federal government is uncertain at best.
However, I think it is important for WMATA to take all the steps possible to put together a budget that preserves our system, then ask regional governments for those additional contributions. The alternative is even more severe service reductions and/or towering fare increases beyond what's already proposed. WMATA should ask area jurisdictions: Is our transit system too valuable to lose?
Here's one way to put together such a budget. This isn't a wish list. It's an option to solve a practical problem as a starting point for discussion. I believe, like many of you, that there are some issues with the WMATA estimates, but they are the numbers as GM I have to work with.
Like John Catoe and the WMATA board, I would include other options for the public to consider. I would include options for bus transfer charges, off-peak rail stop-over privileges, and increased value of the rail to bus bus and bus to rail transfer. I would ask staff to analyze the cost/revenue and ridership gains/losses of each.
Bus service cuts: Implement wider bus stop spacing, modify 4 holidays and other holiday related schedules, and implement targeted trip eliminations for savings of $4.2 million. This compares to a WMATA target of $18 million in subsidy savings. WMATA's estimates peg ridership losses with this proposal at around 0.9 million.
Rail service cuts: Widen headways between 6 am and 6:30 am from 6 to 8 minutes, modify holiday schedules, close targeted station entrances early and/or on weekends and 3 stations altogether on weekends, for savings of $1.93 million. This compares to a WMATA target of $15 million in reductions. Estimated ridership losses are 0.1 million.
Taken together, modifying service reductions in this manner saves about 6.1 million in potential lost ridership and largely preserves the system but creates an additional budget hole of $28.6 million.
Rail fares: Compared to the WMATA proposal, increase the proposed peak-of-the-peak surcharge from 10¢ to 30, institute a 15¢ differential between paper farecards and SmarTrip cards, reduce the off-peak base bus increase from 20¢ to 15¢ and eliminate the proposal to reduce rail-to-bus transfer time from 3 hours to 2 hours. The net Metrorail fare increase would be $7.5 million over the WMATA proposal while reducing lost ridership by about 0.8 million trips.
Bus fares: Compared to the WMATA proposal, reduce the bus SmarTrip base fare increase from 20¢ to 15¢ and related passes accordingly while leaving the cash fare at $1.60 as proposed. Eliminate the proposal to reduce bus to bus transfer time from 3 hours to 2 hours. This costs $7 million in revenue loss over what was proposed but reduces lost ridership by 4.4 million trips.
The net from rail and bus fares is $0.5 million more fare revenue than WMATA proposes while reduceing lost ridership by 5.2 million trips from their estimate. This level of fare increase will still cause lost ridership of 9.9 million trips annually.
Bicycle lockers: Decrease the bicycle locker increase from $200,000 to $120,000.
Implement bus priority mid-year: Beginning January 1, 2011, implement one half of the bus priority measures WMATA identified, saving $1.25 million from a $5 million annual savings for the full program. Implement increased 8 car trains for one-half year (saving $0.5 million) and improved fare collection measures for one-half year (savings of $1.5 million). Expand bus stop spacing on eight other major arterial lines in the District (savings of $0.5 million).
Increase use of funds for preventive maintenance: Postpone three projects: the purchase of additional WMATA farecard machines, the upgrade of West Ox bus garage, and the purchase 9 new buses (91 instead of 100) as a result of savings in peak buses due to bus stop spacing. Utilize the $14.6 million designated for these deferred projects for preventive maintenance.
Return $8 million to next year's capital budget by implementing additional 8-car train service, bus priority measures combined with bus stop spacing, and enhanced fare collection measures over a full year to reduce next year's operating budget. Return $6.6 million to the capital budget in FY 12 by replacing money with fare revenue from increased ridership.
Increase parking revenue: Permit the General Manager to raise or lower parking fees at Metrorail stations according to demand. Let riders use reserved parking spaces and meters earlier in the day. Increase revenue by a rough estimate of $1.3 million.
Pensions and benefits: Recalculate pension plan contributions based on a 12/31/09 valuation instead of a 10/30/09 valuation. Include FY 2010 health and welfare cost savings recovery. Savings estimate for these two items: $5 million.
Salaried position reduction: Reorganize middle and lower level management in maintenance departments. Estimated savings: $2.5 million (approximately 20-25 positions).
Net effect: All of the measures above would avert the worst service reductions and save about 11.3 million lost passenger trips. Unfortunately, about 10.9 million passenger trips annually would still be lost to the system.
Increase in contributions from jurisdictions: Based on what I know today with my General Manger's hat on, I would propose the above, but it would still require an increase in jurisdictional contributions of $40 million This is the same budget hole in the real General Manager's proposed FY11 budget.
If the Board rejected any use of capital funds, the recommended contribution would rise to $54.6. If some of the assumptions did not pan out (like they didn't pan out for WMATA in FY10) and capital funds were rejected, it could easily rise to $62.6 million. The Transit First! coalition is now calling for increased contributions of $74 million to insure that there are no service reductions at all.
When I step out of the General Manager's shoes, I note that last year's additional jurisdictional contributions only totaled $16 million and was made in better times for local governments. But let's ask ourselves the question again. Is it worth preserving a jewel (yes, a tarnished jewel) that helps propel this area's economy? What are the consequences if we don't?
Next: Longer term solutions?
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