New Metro budget, same old approach to transit service

, March 9


New trains are attractive, but there will be more space between most rush-hour trains under Metro’s budget. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)


It’s still the same old story. This may be an extraordinary time for the transit system in the nation’s capital — what with the rebuilding needs and the plunging ridership — but the way Metro goes about planning its service is outdated.


The process that results in a multibillion-dollar service plan for one of the nation’s biggest bus and rail operations is way too much like the way a rural school system sets up its spending.



This is the pattern with Metro: The general manager presents a draft budget that says somebody is going to get hurt, either by fare increases or service cuts — or both in some years — and almost certainly by the region’s taxpayers upping their transit subsidy.



Negotiations with the jurisdictions proceed. Meanwhile, the public gets a chance to say how much it hates the plan. The people who are dependent on transit — often people who rely on a particular bus route — care deeply if the general manager’s plan cuts their service. People who have other options, such as driving, also care about service cuts and fare increases, but not as much as the core constituency for transit, so they’re not as vocal.


That often translates into a report to the Metro board saying that riders prefer fare increases to service cuts. The general manager restores some service. The board, whose members are appointed by the jurisdictions that support Metro, make some of their own changes to reflect what the jurisdictions are hearing from their constituents.


Meanwhile, Metro board members and managers engage in a hoedown with regional leaders where the call and response is, “You’re not paying enough.” “Well, you’re not saving enough.” At the end of the dance, everyone falls exhausted to the floor as they say, “Same time next year?”


And they almost certainly will do it again and again as transit ridership continues to decline. Almost all the decision-makers get to feel good about something. Sure, there are fare increases and service cuts, but they’re not as bad as they might have been, and the taxpayers won’t notice the increase in subsidies.


This is not planning. This is appeasement. It doesn’t solve the problems involved in restoring the transit system to health and making it more attractive to riders.


Decision-makers offer thoughtful comments on the process. On Thursday, for example, board member Malcolm Augustine of Maryland said Metro should be encouraging ridership, not planning for fewer people to ride. He was the dissenting vote in the Metro Finance Committee on a budget that will lengthen the gaps between most rush-hour trains while making the rides more expensive. “To me, it’s more of the same,” Augustine said.


Indeed it is. The board had a good discussion of what needs to be done to restore the system. And it can look forward to having the same discussion next winter, when it will go through the same dance on a new budget that patches financial holes and provides some last-minute rescues to threatened riders.



[What happens to Metro plans for fare hikes, service cuts]


This is what many people mean when they refer to a Metro “death spiral.” And it’s why they say the transit agency needs restructuring at the top and a new financing system.

You can’t starve the transit system into a state of good health. But that’s what we in the region tolerate whenever we watch Metro increase fares while cutting service and think, well, at least they didn’t cut all the bus routes they talked about.



Might as well apply some leeches to the patient and await developments. Otherwise, give Metro a guaranteed, regionwide source of revenue other than the rider, as is done for other major transit systems.


At the same time, we can’t expect more than we’re getting out of a Metro governance system in which the top decision-makers owe their allegiance to the jurisdictions that appointed them rather than the transit system they’re guiding. However well-intentioned, the people on the board are serving multiple masters. The decision-makers should be focused on the long-term health of the transit system, not on the expediencies of the moment.