General Manager Richard Sarles told the board of directors that the agency has revised its budget forecast. He said his staff believes that the improving job market and rising gasoline prices may encourage more people to ride the system, shrinking the budget gap by $6 million.
The system hasn't seen an increase in riders yet, he acknowledged, but he's optimistic those factors will help his proposed $1.47 billion operating budget for fiscal 2012.
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Even with the revised estimate, Metro officials are eyeing a slate of possible service cuts including increased wait times for trains on weekends to as long as 25 minutes. The rail cuts would save Metro the same amount as the gap reduction: $6 million.
The system also wants to cut some D.C. bus service.
Sarles said Metro plans to hold a series of public hearings next month on the potential cuts to give the board options on how to fill the void. "We still have a $66 million issue to address."
Board members could choose to monetize some of Metro's leases so the agency gets a lump sum payment next year or tap the capital budget, though those measures are one-time solutions that board members have complained about in the past. They also could increase the amounts they subsidize the agency.
Some jurisdictions, including Arlington and Maryland, have suggested that they can pay their share of the gap by increasing their subsidies.
But the District has been especially hard-pressed to increase its contribution as it faces its own $320 million budget gap. Metro board member Tom Downs, who represents D.C., welcomed the news of the shrinking gap as he said it reduced the District's share by about $1.5 million.
But he said the District still plans to look at cutting a handful of bus routes to save an estimated $1.27 million and to eliminate a bus discount for riders in Anacostia.