“Forty percent of our ridership base is federal employees. And we carry more than 50 percent of federal employees to work everyday. That’s huge. In addition we carry elected officials, congresspersons, senators.”
It is of note that for a system that has been around for four decades in our nation’s capital, WMATA has no dedicated funding source. While it recovers more than 80 percent of the operating costs of its trains from the farebox and more than 30 percent from the fareboxes on its buses, each year it has to present its case to Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to get funding for the next year. Catoe says this was one of the biggest differences between his current agency and L.A. and a concern going forward as the agency ages and is in need of critical capital improvements.
“From a financial standpoint, L.A. has a sales tax. Has two half-cent sales taxes. So it has 1 cent on every dollar spent in the county that comes to the agency in support of its broad transportation and its transit programs.
“Again here, every year I and others have to go to Richmond and to Annapolis and to the District office building asking for funding. And the jurisdictions have been consistent in providing that funding, but it’s not guaranteed. Each year you have to ask for it, versus having a dedicated funding source. Now we’re working with Congress and others to try to get some type of dedicated funding, but that’s not going to happen over night, that’s going to take time.
“So from a funding situation that’s a radical difference. In L.A. it’s more certain. Here it requires we take an action every year and there is no guarantee to that,” Catoe says.
As part of securing the funding needed to just operate the system, Catoe put in place fare increases, the first in several years, which went into effect the Sunday before I interviewed him. To say he was nervous was an understatement.
“Monday morning I expected a lot of people to come up to me and say very unpleasant things, but they didn’t,” Catoe says.
“Instead at lunch time a couple of people I saw on the street said, we’re not going to get mad at you about the fare increase. So it’s accepted. I think the majority of our people who use the system understand the costs of what we do are going up. There is always a certain percentage who say, you know I’m not going to pay more unless this happens or that happens, I’m going to drive in. But you find out that they really don’t. It’s like the person who is going to move to Canada if a certain president is elected, and they never leave the country. It’s the same type of situation.”
Fare increases always beg the question, are they needed? With this one in place, Catoe said he did not believe there would be a large ridership loss, but I asked was it a necessity.
“It’s a necessity for next year’s budget,” Catoe says, “And that was the hard sell.
“Historically here, when we did fare increases it occurred with the budget. And I was articulating, no I wanted an 18-month fare increase, because by doing that the increase would be smaller. It was already the largest increase in Metro’s history, but if we waited until July when it was absolutely necessary for the budget, the amount of the increase had to be greater — one-third larger.”
Catoe says the board also discussed instituting future increases automatically, instead of waiting until they were needed. New increases now would use the cost of living every two years as a metric to determine if there should be automatic increases.
Catoe reiterated his desire for comprehensive dedicated funding for the region — capital and operating funding. Without that, he says, fare increases will continue to go into effect and eventually may reach a point where people would need to make other choices.
But what if WMATA had its funding reduced or cut entirely from one of its three sources — Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia?
“It would be a huge impact,” Catoe says. “Maryland provides almost a third of the revenues to the system. And it would cause massive shutdowns. A third of the service would have to be eliminated.