Metroway saved from WMATA budget cuts

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Metroway saved from WMATA budget cuts
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority general manager Paul Wiedefeld will propose his fiscal 2018 operating budget for the beleaguered agency Thursday, and while Alexandria appears to have escaped its worst effects, it will be asked to chip in more money.

Faced with a $290 million funding shortfall due in part to declining ridership and escalating costs, Wiedefeld has proposed what he called a “reality check” budget plan. He will present his $1.8 billion proposal to the WMATA board’s finance committee today.

Within that budget, Alexandria is being asked for $39.5 million in fiscal 2018, up from $33 million in the fiscal 2017 budget. The 20 percent hike is consistent with increases asked of other jurisdictions in the region and is part of a total proposed contribution of $251.4 million by Virginia governments. Under Wiedefeld’s plan, D.C. would pay $370.3 million, and Maryland $375.4 million.

Officials with the city’s department of transportation and environmental services did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview in July when the plan to ask jurisdictions for more money first came to light, deputy transportation director Carrie Sanders said any proposal would be considered through the city’s budget process alongside other priorities.

“Metro has to face reality when it comes to what the region says it can afford and direct those resources to best serve the riders we have today,” said Wiedefeld in a statement. “This plan has Metro doing everything in our power to get major expense categories under control while improving safety and making the trains run on time.”

Under the plan, bus and off-peak rail fares increase by 25 cents, and peak rail fares and parking fees at Metrorail stations increase by 10 cents. These fare raises are expected to generate $21 million in net revenue. Approximately 1,000 jobs would also be cut.

The proposal also calls for widening peak train arrivals to every eight minutes on each line, while off-peak arrivals would be reduced too. Metrobus routes deemed to be most inefficient would also be eliminated, with the option to transfer services to the control of local providers.

Last month, it appeared that Alexandria could have been hit hard by the bus route reduction, as the bus rapid transit system Metroway was proposed to be cut by WMATA staff. For a meeting October 13, staff had been asked to prepare a list of Metrobus lines with the highest subsidy per rider, with a total of 20 brought to that budget preparation session.

In an email, WMATA spokeswoman Morgan Dye said the presentation was just for “illustrative purposes,” but the data called into question the future of Metroway, which has been operational since 2014.

Staff found that Metroway receives a subsidy of $7.74 per rider, but has 1,633 weekday daily riders, the most of the 20 routes. Annually, Metroway was found to have more than 450,000 riders and an annual subsidy of $3.5 million, both the highest among the 20 on the list.

The plan to cut Metroway was shelved by staffers, who pared their initial list of 20 bus routes that could be eliminated down to 14.

Metroway begins at the Braddock Road Metro station, and uses dedicated bus lanes along U.S. Route 1 between Potomac Avenue and East Glebe Road in the developing Potomac Yard neighborhood of the city. It also uses dedicated lanes through Crystal City, before its northern terminus at the Pentagon City Metro station in Arlington County.

It has been praised for helping move people up and down the corridor as Potomac Yard continues to develop and add new residents, with a Metrorail station in the neighborhood slated to open in 2020.

Even after the station is open, Stewart Schwartz, executive director of transportation and development advocacy group the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the bus route plays a key role and must be given time to keep growing.

“The Metroway is very much still in a ramp-up phase,” Schwartz said. “One interesting angle to this is that often community members will be critical about new development coming online before the transit or other infrastructure. In this case, the transit came online before most of the new development.”

Another proposal by WMATA staff would have closed 20 stations in the Metrorail system during off-peak hours with the lowest rider- ship. That plan would have included the Van Dorn Street and Eisenhower Avenue Metro stations, but has been shelved.

Local leaders said they remain confident in Wiedefeld’s leadership, as WMATA continues to wrestle with significant financial challenges.

“I often wonder whether Paul Wiedefeld would have taken the job if he knew what he was getting into,” said U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8) in an interview last month. “I feel sorry for him because it feels like every week he turns over a new stone and there’s a whole bunch of snakes underneath it.

“But sooner or later, he will get to the point where there are no more stones to turn over, because he’s been reacting very constructively and very responsively every time he finds a new problem.”

The WMATA board will be asked at its December meeting to schedule a public hearing on the budget proposal. The public outreach and comment period begins in January and lasts for a month, and the fiscal 2018 budget is expected to be adopted in March.

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