WASHINGTON – Some transit systems in the Maryland-D.C. area would have to struggle to stay afloat if President Clinton enacts funding cuts approved by Congress for public transportation systems, spokesmen said.
The House voted 393-29 last week to approve $310 million in cuts to operating expenses for transit systems across the country. That would reduce funds from $710 million to $400 million for fiscal year 1996. The Senate approved the same cuts Monday, by a vote of 87 to 10.
A White House spokeswoman said President Clinton is expected to sign the measure.
For some systems, such as ones in Hagerstown, Columbia and the Washington-metropolitan area, the cuts could force cutbacks in service, spokesmen said.
The Hagerstown-based Washington County Transportation Commission anticipates a $60,000 cut in its $325,000 in federal funds, said Keith Godwin, one of the commission’s managers. That could result in a 22 to 50 percent drop in service, he said.
“When [larger systems] get a nosebleed, we are hemorrhaging,” Godwin said.
But service reductions seem to be the most realistic solution, Godwin said. Fare increases are not practical because the commission lost about 205,000 passengers after a 40 percent fare hike and 10 percent service cut in 1992, he said.
The federal cuts could force the transportation commission to provide hourly bus service along most of its half-hourly routes, Godwin said.
Many riders are transit-dependent students, senior citizens and disabled people, and any service reduction would hurt their independence, he said.
“We only carry about 305,000 passengers a year … but it’s a lifeline for people in this community,” Godwin said.
Another small system, Howard County’s ColumBUS, which serves Columbia and operates one route in neighboring Ellicott City, could be forced to make service cuts or seek additional funds from the county, said Maggie Brown, vice president/director of community services for the system’s owner, Columbia Association Inc.
“Some type of action would have to be taken because that’s the majority of the funds” running the system, she said of the federal money.
Federal funds now cover 75 percent of the ColumBUS system’s operating costs, Brown said.
The system is already operating at a deficit, she said.
“Even if there were [a fare] increase … I don’t think that that would defray what our system might have to absorb if there were additional cuts in federal funding,” she said.
Columbia Association Inc. – which operates a swimming pool and several athletic clubs and community programs in Columbia – hopes a group with more transportation expertise will take over ColumBUS, Brown said. “We’d really like to see the county government take it over,” she said.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority – which provides bus and rail service in the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs – has not decided how to cut costs if the federal cuts are enacted. But service cuts – and, consequently, job cuts – are a viable option, said Patricia Lambe, a WMATA spokeswoman.
The Washington-area system relies primarily on fares to finance its $645 million operating budget, said Peter Benjamin, its chief financial officer. The federal government contributes about 4 percent and local governments contribute 40 percent, he said.
But, Benjamin said, “Any change in federal funding directly affects service or fares unless something else can make it up.”
Since WMATA introduced a 10-cent fare increase at the end of the summer, additional increases would be undesirable, Lambe said.
“You lose ridership when you look at fare increases,” Lambe said. “So if you can’t bring in more money, you need to reduce costs.”
According to a recent survey by the American Public Transit Association, several transit systems nationwide are raising fares or cutting back service to compensate for approved and expected cuts in federal transportation funding.
Of the 157 APTA member systems surveyed in September by the nonprofit transportation advocacy group, 40 percent have raised fares this year or plan to raise fares by December. Eighty-two percent of those increasing their fares said the increases were caused by fiscal year 1995 federal cuts or anticipated cuts.
Another 40 percent of the members said they have cut back service this year or will do so by December. Of those, 93 percent said the service cuts were prompted by federal cuts.
“We felt that it was important to take the pulse of the industry in the wake of major budget cuts,” said Chip Bishop, an APTA spokesman.