By Kathleen Stubbs @kathleenstubbs3
WASHINGTON — Budget and Finance Committee members asked Metro’s chief financial officer on Thursday the reasoning behind the general manager’s proposed operating budget for FY 2020, which includes several new, costly initiatives.
Metro Board member Mike Goldman, who represents Montgomery County, said he would support Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s proposal of running all eight-car trains on the Red Line, but not on the Silver Line. Wiedefeld had proposed operating all eight-car trains on every rail line in the system – which would simplify rail yard work.
“I support eight-car trains on the Red Line because I know the Red Line… is overcrowded,” Goldman said.
Wiedefeld’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget would cost $3.4 billion, including capital and operating budgets.
Part of what drives up the cost of the operating budget are exceptions to the new 3-percent cap on subsidy increases, such as legal fees, according to a memorandum to the committee, distributed prior to their Thursday meeting.
Goldman said whether the initiatives generate new ridership matters to him.
“I don’t see the point of just, for example, putting the eight-car trains on the Silver Line,” Goldman said. “Which is very expensive if we’re not producing additional riders coming in from Reston, or those stops.”
During this year’s legislative sessions, D.C., Maryland and Virginia’s legislative bodies made history when they passed similar legislation that promised to reserve specific amounts of money for Metro annually. The jurisdictions would reserve that money, and Metro would be able to sell debt on it. One condition of the Maryland and Virginia pieces of legislation was Metro’s operating budget to each must not increase by more than 3 percent – what Wiedefeld dubbed a 3-percent cap.
Chief financial officer Dennis Anosike called the part of the budget that falls within the required 3-percent cap the “base budget.” The proposed operating budget and proposed subsidy also include increasing costs for two other categories – costs that are legislatively excluded from the 3-percent cap, and “customer service initiatives.”
The total operating subsidy, including the capped subsidy, legislative exclusions from the cap, and new customer service initiatives is $1.2 billion, according to Wiedefeld’s proposed budget for FY 2020.
The “customer service initiatives” in Wiedefeld’s operating budget, if the board approves them, would entail proposed service increases including lengthening all six-car trains to eight-car trains and extending rush-hour headways for the morning and the evening but without requiring the higher, rush-hour fares, both of which would cost Metro millions. The initiatives also include funding for ending the Grosvenor turn-back and the Silver Spring turn-back, in which half of rush-hour trains turn around at those Red Line stations and then head back toward the core of the system in D.C.
Board member Jim Corcoran, who represents Virginia, asked Wiedefeld how he balances potential ridership increases with cost.
“If it’s purely a cost equation… transit in this country does not meet that metric,” Wiedefeld told the committee.
He then said he takes more into consideration of budget decisions than just costs and revenue.
“Remember the role we play [in] congestion relief, the role we play in environmental quality, the role we play in attracting economic development, those are factors that come into play here,” Wiedefeld told the committee members.
Further, Wiedefeld said he believes that the best way to bring back riders is improving service quality and frequency of service.
Anosike said Metro spent a little over $1 million in its Rush Hour Promise initiative, in which Metro would refund fares to registered SmarTrip cards of passengers whose rush-hour trips that took more than 15 minutes longer than they should have, from February to October this year. That includes 265,850 trips.
Board chairman D.C. Council member Jack Evans (Ward 3) said he would support asking jurisdictions for additional operating funds.
“I think that the jurisdictions are going to have to pay more for the increased service, and I agree with that,” Evans said. “And I will certainly be promoting it at the District that we pay whatever the cost is to support the general manager’s proposal to increase service. Our job at Metro is to provide the best service we can for our riders, and it’s the jurisdictions’ job to pay for that.”
The board will discuss the proposed budget and make amendments as needed and adopt it early next year. The budget then would go into effect in early July.
One board committee member asked Anosike if Metro could cut bus service to reduce costs, given the ongoing bus study called the Bus Transformation Project, funded by Metro. However, that kind of change in bus service requires a public hearing.