In D.C., WMATA faces similar fiscal woes


Now and then, we leave New York for glimpses of life in other transit systems. While TWU members are protesting MTA’s current labor policies, other public transit systems are running into their own labor-induced fiscal problems. Today’s journey out of New York City takes us south to Washington, D.C., where the WMATA is in its own financial bind.

The excellent urban planning and pro-pedestrian and -transit blog Greater Greater Washington has tirelessly covered Metro issued in the District. Over the last few weeks, David Alpert and his team of contributors have explored the WMATA’s $100 million budget gap. To us, that figure represents small beans. After all, what is a $100 million gap after a year spent talking about a $1.5 billion gap? Yet, the vitality and viable of the D.C. area is heavily dependent upon a properly functioning Metro system.

Michael Perkins first tackled the causes of the gap a few weeks ago. According to Perkins, over half of the raise is related to increased labor costs. Nearly $20 million will go to mandatory 3 percent pay raises for WMATA employees, and another $33 million comes from pension, health care and benefits plan increases. MetroAccess, the WMATA equivalent of our ParaTransit service, will cost an additional $19.7 million. Energy costs round out the budget deficit.

To a tee, D.C. is facing the same problems as New York City. The MTA is facing a mandatory three-year, 11-percent raise for its employees. Pension and health care costs continue to rise, and ParaTransit’s economics were a sticking point during last winter’s fare hike debate.

A few days after exploring the sources of the deficit, Perkins examined some gap-closing measures. His main proposal examined a rather modest (by New York’s standards) five percent fare increase with fees designed to reward constant riders. The WMATA can also ask Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for more money. The MTA doesn’t enjoy that luxury but isn’t beholden to three ideologically different and very fickle overseers. Finally, Perkins explored some service cuts and cost reductions including turning escalators into staircases during off-peak hours as a way to save energy.

The GGW series wrapped up last week with an exploration of the long-term financial plans for the America’s Subway. While the MTA just announced a $28.8 billion five-year capital plan, the WMATA believes it needs just $7.6 billion over the next ten years to acehive and maintain its own State of Good Repair. Without more borrowing or contributions from the three jurisdictions served by Metro, the DC subway system will begin a slide into disrepair.

In the end, I’m not surprised by any of these fiscal challenges facing the WMATA. Around the country, the story is the same. High operations costs coupled with ever-increasing compensation packages for workers along with a weakening economy are sending the nation’s transportation authorities into fiscal difficulties. Although these networks move millions of people every day, the federal government is loath to invest in them as heavily as they do roads, and cities such as New York, Washington and Chicago are left with severely unfounded infrastructure agencies that are also heavily in debt. When will that policy change?

Categories : WMATA

6 Responses to “In D.C., WMATA faces similar fiscal woes”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Yet, the vitality and viable of the D.C. area is heavily dependent upon a properly functioning Metro system.

    It’s even more heavily dependent on subsidies from cities like New York and San Francisco. In 2005, Greater New York paid $93 billion more in federal taxes than it got back in spending, and the Bay Area paid $40 billion more; Greater Washington paid $67 billion less.

    On the Northeast Corridor, money flows south, as surely as along the Hudson it flows north.

  2. Alex B. says:


    DC does indeed get more back in Federal dollars, but it also has unique burdens due to the location of the Capital here. Huge portions of the city (and some of its best real estate) are tax exempt, either for government facilities or for other associated uses (embassies, etc). Additionally, there are extra security concerns and costs that the District bears in the name of the Nation’s Capital. Furthermore, federal interests directly limit the kinds of taxation available to local governments.

    We may like to think of DC as a city like any other, but the reality is quite different.

    With that said, I don’t think that kind of thinking applies to Metro, necessarily. Metro’s capital funds were indeed met with a large federal contribution, but the rail system still operates with some of the highest farebox recovery rates in the US.

    • Alon Levy says:

      It’s the other way around. DC and its suburbs pay above average amounts of taxes. But they also get much, much more in federal spending – even areas that don’t have big federal offices, such as Fairfax and Montgomery Counties.

  3. rhywun says:

    Fares should simply be raised to cover all the necessary costs. When the public’s collective head explodes, then a serious discussion of priorities can begin.

  4. SEAN says:

    Washington’s local bus fares are among the lowest in the US for large cities. $1.35 cash or $1.25 with a Smartrip card. For some reason governor Airhead of Maryland has an alergy towards funding transit. MTA in Baltimore recently double tracked it’s lightrail system & the governor made sure that the construction was as disruptive as possible so the ridership levels wouldn’t return to prior figures. For a while that plan was successful until gas prices jumped in 2008. Today ridership levels are at their highest numbers. So what was gained for pulling such a stunt?

    Now Maryland is spending tons of money on a new toll road called the Inter County Connector between Prince George’s & Montgomery counties, yet a lot of people said we don’t want it. What they wanted was increases in transit not road expantions.

  5. JP says:

    Let’s not forget there are some ups to the DC metro, recently in the news:

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