WMATA finds $28 million surplus

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Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Editor's note: The original story has been modified to reflect the following correction:

A story in Tuesday's edition of The Washington Examiner overstated the surplus that Metro had at the end of fiscal 2011. While the agency ended the year with expenses coming in $46.3 million less than budgeted, it also earned $24.6 million less than expected in revenues. The fiscal year thus ended with a $21.7 million surplus.

Metro had a $28 million surplus in its last fiscal year, which ended a day before the transit system raised fares for riders and increased taxpayer subsidies to meet a projected shortfall in the current budget.

The transit agency said Monday that it closed the 2012 fiscal year on June 30 under budget through "aggressive cost management measures" that included changing MetroAccess ridership rules, saving on fuel costs and auditing employee health care records to make sure all dependents receiving insurance were eligible.

"I am pleased to report that we ended the year with a surplus and we continue to identify cost savings opportunities to ensure we are operating efficiently," Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said Monday.

Metro typically presents a stark forecast with a budget hole that needs to be filled with increased fares, service cuts or higher subsidies. But it was the second year in a row that Metro ended the year with a multimillion-dollar surplus.

The agency said it had a $21.7 million surplus in the previous fiscal year.

Together, the $49.7 million in surpluses comes close to the estimated

$56 million the agency expects to raise with the fare increase that hit riders on July 1. Riders now pay as much as 28 percent more per trip even when using the discount-providing SmarTrip cards, while local communities are paying 7.6 percent more for a total of $669 million of the $1.6 billion operating budget.

Metro had known it probably would have a surplus before finalizing the fare increases and higher subsidies. But Chief Financial Officer Carol Dillon Kissal said that she couldn't use the savings then because it was only a forecast.

She said the agency had locked in fuel prices at lower levels and used less than expected, partly because Metro's trains now move slower because they operate manually instead of automatically, as designed, since the 2009 Fort Totten train crash.

The agency also says it saved more than expected due to lower ridership on its MetroAccess service for disabled riders after the agency tightened eligibility for the service and pushed more riders to use the rail and bus system instead of the pricey shared-ride shuttles.

Metro said this spring that it plans to use the latest surplus, plus $3 million in savings from the prior year, to offset taxpayer subsidies that jurisdictions pay in the next budget.

Now, in a financial outlook report to its board slated to be presented on Thursday, Metro says it is working to reduce a projected budget gap in the next cycle from $76 million to as little as $25 million using the surplus and other savings. But many issues remain uncertain, including federal funding and ongoing negotiations with its largest union.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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