Delegate Korman suggests less of a need for fare increases if budget proposals are met
The Maryland General Assembly likely will fully fund Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s request for the operating budget, reducing the risk of untimely fare increases or service cuts, a local delegate said.
“I haven’t heard any pushback for the operating [budget],” said the delegate, Del. Marc Korman (D-16), who represents Montgomery County, on Tuesday.
Korman said Friday’s news that Gov. Larry Hogan said he supported the idea of a dedicated funding source added to his confidence. Wiedefeld in his 2017 plan requested all three jurisdictions find means to supply money on which Metro can sell debt each year. Wiedefeld left the decision of where to find the dedicated funding up to the jurisdictions.
“We spent a lot of time on it; on Friday, he [Hogan] agreed,” Korman said.
Steven D. McCulloch, a legislative analyst for the Transportation Department, told the Senate Public Safety, Transportation, and Environment Committee that legislators would have to make a budget amendment to fully fund the Metro request. The shortfall in the proposed fiscal year 2019 budget pertained to Metro’s new state-level safety oversight agency, the Metro Safety Commission.
McCulloch said declining rail and bus ridership has caused the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority revenue from fares, which helps fund Metro’s operating budget, to decrease in the last few years. Therefore, the funding jurisdictions Maryland, D.C. and Virginia continue to have to contribute a greater percentage than a few years ago.
Money from Maryland for Metro’s capital and operating budgets comes from the State transportation trust fund. Korman, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said if there were a shortfall, residents who use Metro should not be concerned. Maryland would find a way to fund the needed amount without harming riders’ experience.
“[We would] step up so riders don’t have to deal with fare increases or cut service,” Korman said.
Korman said members of the House Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, within the Appropriations Committee asked few questions about Metro operating budget funding during the subcommittee hearing Monday. He said he saw no reason why the General Assembly wouldn’t approve Wiedefeld’s funding request.
“A lot of our residents ride it and those who don’t ride it don’t want people who do ride it getting out of Metro into cars [and] into traffic,” Korman said.
Wiedefeld kept a promise he made last year to Maryland, D.C. and Virginia governments to not increase the operating budget request by more than 3 percent.
“Historically for the last five years, that subsidy has grown roughly at a rate of 8 percent, so what that requires is some very tough management decisions to be made and regional decisions to be made, but we feel it is needed to get a hold on some of the short-term issues,” Wiedefeld told the Senate Public Safety, Transportation, and Environment Committee.
Wiedefeld said Metro staff has sought ways to reduce costs within management and costs pertaining to benefits of future hires. Efforts to outsource work, to save money, are underway as well. Wiedefeld said Metro otherwise had few other places to find money aside from increasing fares or cutting service.
The budget is not set in stone, however. Wiedefeld confirmed that Metro management and its unions are still in the middle of labor contract negotiations and so Metro’s operating budget for fiscal year 2019 could change.
On the capital side of the budget, Wiedefeld said in April 2017 he was concerned about Metro losing a grant from the federal government for what officials call Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) projects, once the Act expires. On Thursday the possible loss from not renewing the grant, equating to millions of dollars, seemed more pressing to Wiedefeld than before.
“They’re just basic projects to keep the system open, to keep it running,” Wiedefeld said March 1. “So we have to invest in that, so that leaves very few alternatives. We have to turn to the local jurisdictions to kick in more dollars.”
The capital projects if not completed could harm safety, and so Wiedefeld doesn’t consider delaying them to be an option.
“Obviously, we’re going to continue to focus internally on the management side and then we turn to, unfortunately, cutting service or raising fares. We have literally no other place to go. But we cannot back away from the safety of the system. So that’s the box that we’re in now.”
It is ultimately up to Metro’s Board of Directors whether to raise fares. Metro’s Board of Directors generally increases fares every other year.
Wiedefeld said the Trump Administration has proposed to reduce the final payment of the grant by tens of millions of dollars as well.