Metro is proposing a $1.65 billion operating budget for next year that would not require any fare increases or service cuts.
General Manager Richard Sarles presented the proposal Thursday, boasting that it offers new service on the Silver Line and on the bus system without needing fare hikes like the across-the-board increases enacted on July 1.
But the rosy forecast presented Thursday may be short-lived. The board's current policy is to raise fares every other year, meaning riders likely would be asked to pay more by July 2014.
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Additionally, much of the 4.9 percent increase in spending over the current budget comes from dipping into other buckets of money. Metro is covering $30 million of the proposed budget with money earned from past surpluses, a one-time fix for continuing costs that the agency won't be able to rely upon in coming years.
It also is using $31 million to pay for preventative maintenance on its operations side, money that otherwise would be used for paying the agency's $5.4 billion unfunded capital needs for infrastructure, such as new rail cars, new escalators or buses, a practice that board member Mortimer Downey called "very pernicious," though legal.
"My own preference would be zero," Downey told reporters. "The more money we have to pay toward capital needs the better."
Although riders wouldn't be asked to pay more, taxpayers would feel a hit -- especially in Virginia. Sarles is seeking $27 million more in local taxpayers' subsidies for a total of $734 million.
While that represents a 3.9 percent increase overall from the current budget, the jurisdictions will face widely varying bills.
Prince George's County would see a reduction in its costs, while Arlington County is being asked to pay $50 million, 16.9 percent more than it is spending now. Arlington County Board member Mary Hynes said that would equal a penny and half on the tax rate, which she called a significant hit.
Sarles defended using the $30 million in surpluses to fund the budget, despite concerns from board member Tom Downs, who called it a bad practice. "I'm not concerned I'm creating a problem," Sarles told reporters. "Rather than keep that in the piggy bank, we're not going to ask our jurisdictions for more."
The budget calls for no wage increases except for step increases under existing contracts. But Sarles' plan does call for hiring 327 more workers to expand Metro's workforce to a record 12,659 employees. Of those new positions, 98 are for the Silver Line that is slated to open in December. The remainder are for bus service improvements, reducing fatigue among overstretched workers, increasing security and new information technology workers.
Thursday's proposal was only the beginning of what will likely be multiple discussions over the coming months. The board must approve the budget by June 30.