Photo by boyghost on Flickr.

by Chris Zimmerman

“And special credit must go to Metro, which, in shattering its ridership records, proved once again that, no matter how long its lines or crowded its trains, it is invaluable to the life of the Washington region.” — The Washington Post, January 21, 2009

“Do you think Metro did a good job handling Inauguration crowds?” The Post Express Poll Center asked readers the day after — and 76 percent said “Yes.”

This in a week that saw three record-shattering days in a row for Metro ridership. Good planning and many extra hours put in by everyone at WMATA, from the General Manager on down to bus and rail operators, all contributed to the most successful day and week in Metro’s history.

Tuesday, January 20th, a day in which car travel to and from the District was virtually impossible (as opposed to just unbearable, as on a normal Tuesday), was a kind of laboratory experiment in alternative transportation in the National Capital Region. And indeed, record numbers of people made it safely downtown and back — most of them on transit.

Last week’s success comes after a year marked by accomplishment at the regional transit agency. Ridership continues to grow. In fact, eighteen of the top twenty all-time high ridership days have occurred in the last 12 months. Even as more demands are being placed on the system, the quality and reliability of Metro’s service increased across the board.

And yet, in the midst of ever-growing demand, and demonstrable progress in improving its performance, WMATA may be forced to slash service for the first time. Thanks to the national economic crisis, Metro’s Board of Directors has been presented with a budget proposal for the next fiscal year that would cut almost 900 positions, about 8 percent of the workforce, to close a budget gap of more than $170 million.

Anticipating a freeze in subsidies from the supporting governments, General Manager John Catoe has already moved to reduce administrative costs, but with the rise in cost of many non-discretionary items (for example, $44 million in pension costs thanks to the stock market’s dive), the sheer magnitude of the problem implies real and substantial reduction in service levels. On the menu for the first time are reductions in bus routes, in hours of operation of rail service, and the closing of some station entrances.

Unfortunately, “fiscal stimulus” legislation Congress is currently considering will do little for Metro’s budget problem. Transit funding contained in the bill which passed the House is entirely aimed at capital projects. While these are certainly very important to the future of the region, funding new projects does not address the operating budget shortfalls that are the immediate impact of the growing economic crisis on public transportation agencies.

Furthermore, it will be difficult to explain to the public the logic of working on expansion while slashing existing service, especially if the quality of that service declines. And it is simply not reasonable to expect WMATA to meet continually-growing demand, and maintain the high quality of service recently achieved, with a shrinking workforce and diminished resources.

The hard truth is that, if the service we expect is to be maintained, more revenue will have to be found somewhere — from new federal aid, from the local and state governments which subsidize WMATA, or from riders.

Inauguration Day indeed showed the value — and potential — of Metro to our region. It would be tragic if it were now allowed to fall into decline, a victim of the (hopefully temporary) financial storm.

Zimmerman is a member of the Arlington County Board. Last month, he completed a one-year term as Chairman of the WMATA Board of Directors, on which he has served since 1998.

Chris Zimmerman is a member of the Arlington County Board, and a former voting member of the WMATA Board of Directors for 13 years. He serves on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, Virginia Railway Express Operations Board, the Transportation Planning Board for the National Capital Region, and more. He was also the first local official to guest post on Greater Greater Washington.