DC Metro Demands More Tax Subsidies or They’ll End Airport Service

February 9, 2015

WMATA, the subway and bus system in the DC area, raises fares every other year (last year, they went up about 3 percent). In the off years, spending still goes up, so they seek additional subsidies from their member jurisdictions (the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia). For FY 2016, Metro in November suggested that the members ante up $929 million in tax dollars as operating subsidies, a 15 percent increase over this year’s $809 million. (Metro’s total operating budget is about $1.8 billion.)

Local elected officials said absolutely not: they have budget constraints and a 15 percent increase was unacceptable. They told WMATA staff to go back and figure out how to live with less subsidy. WMATA staff have now come back with a Washington Monument ploy: cut all bus service to area airports:

The airport buses to be canceled are all service on the 5A to Dulles and the B30 to BWI. Also proposed for elimination are the 34 bus along Pennsylvania Avenue, the 80 bus connecting downtown to the Kennedy Center, and reduced service on the 16 bus service on Columbia Pike. All told, WMATA estimates the cuts would end service for 2 million riders. Rail service would not be spared: it would also reduced to every 15 minutes on Saturdays and every 20 minutes on Sundays. Total savings would be about $14 million, or 1.5 percent of the operating budget.

Some of those, especially the airport routes, sound like a strategy to maximize hurt among the most people in hopes of preventing any cuts at all. The Washington Monument ploy is exactly that: a tactic to avoid budget cuts by claiming that the first or only thing you can cut from the budget is conveniently the most popular or politically untouchable thing you do. It got its name from a 1969 episode where the director of the National Parks Department closed the Washington Monument and the Grand Canyon for two days every week to deal with budget cuts, which were quickly rescinded. Other examples include Massachusetts’s officials threatening to turn off lights on the Zakim Bridge (laying off one toll taker would have saved more money), Detroit schools saying budget cuts meant they’d have to stop providing toilet paper, Fairfax County in Virginia threatening to end a $6,000 program to help widows of firefighters, and the Boston Zoo saying a 20 percent budget cut would mean they’d have to euthanize the animals.

In the very same slideshow, WMATA staff showed the results of a survey of their own riders, when they asked them how they could balance the budget. Slashing popular bus service didn’t make the cut:

You'd think you could find 1.5 percent in budget cuts in those ideas. WMATA directors will consider the staff recommended plan this Thursday. More on the Washington Monument ploy here.

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