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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 10:45 PM ET, 01/09/2012

Metro’s peak-of-the-peak didn’t change behavior

One of the most popular ideas in U.S. transportation is congestion pricing. One of the least popular ideas among Metrorail commuters is the peak-of-the-peak fare.

They were supposed to be the same thing.

Turned out that a good idea in one context didn’t look quite so good in another, and Metro General Manager Richard Sarles will propose elimination of the peak-of-the-peak charge on people who ride at the height of the rush hour.

Congestion pricing creates a financial incentive to avoid a highway or a train when they are likely to be most crowded. There’s a congestion charge on the Dulles Greenway and on the Intercounty Connector. But the most vivid example for commuters will arrive later this year with the opening of the high-occupancy toll lanes on the west side of the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

If the HOT lanes get so crowded that traffic slows unacceptably, the lane managers will jack up the price till prospective drivers decide their time really isn’t worth that much money, and the traffic flow eases.

That’s the idea in traffic. In transit, the idea was that riders would learn to time their trips so that they arrived at stations before or after the peak-of-the-peak took effect in the morning or afternoon.

It didn’t happen in significant numbers, says Carol Kissal, Metro’s chief financial officer. Meanwhile, it became yet another way to baffle tourists who had to deal with yet another layer of complexity on the Metrorail fare charts.

You’ve seen them: They stare at the fare charts on the vending machines like we had ordered them to read “War and Peace” outdoors.

But why didn’t the regulars go for it?

The 20-cent peak-of-the-peak surcharge is collected from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and from 4:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays, or about half of Metro's rush-hour service.

If these people had any choice in the matter, they wouldn’t have been cramming aboard those already crowded train cars in the first place. This was basically the 9-to-5 workers, the sort of people who answer to their bosses on work hours and not to the transit authority.

These are people who let several morning trains pass by because they’re too crowded, then hurl themselves through the doors of the first one that has a chance of accommodating them.

If that wasn’t enough to push them out of the rat race, a surcharge of 20 cents a trip wasn’t going to do it either. So people stuck with their work and transit schedules.

But there were plenty of people who simply didn’t care about the surcharge. Many federal workers get a significant taxpayer subsidy to ride transit. We tend to be more tolerant of rising costs when we’re not spending our own money.

By comparison, the HOT lanes pricing is likely to be more effective at congestion management. Drivers will have a real choice about using the lanes, whenever they drive, and if they do use them, they’re likely to be spending real money — their own money.

How did Metro wind up with this thing?

Riders began paying the peak-of-the-peak in the summer of 2010. Before the Metro board voted to approve the fare increases, it went to the public with seemingly endless menus of options involving various fare increases and service cuts.

Public interest focused largely on avoiding the service cuts. The peak-of-the-peak charge slipped in with relatively little discussion, given that it was an experiment with a completely new type of fare for Metro.

By comparison, Sarles’s proposal for the coming year looks quite simple — unless the board decides to once again expand the menu. This time, riders should make sure their attention isn’t diverted. The end of the peak-of-the-peak is likely to be the most popular element in the new budget.

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Poll: Do you support increases

Ask Metro’s general manager questions, 1 p.m. Tuesday

By  |  10:45 PM ET, 01/09/2012

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