Metro board to review more options on fare increases


Metro riders have different interests, depending on where they live, and those are reflected in the debate over fare increases. (Susan Biddle/For The Washington Post)

Metro is going to start collecting more money from riders this year, and on Thursday, it may resolve how much it will demand from various types of riders.

On the agenda for discussion by the Metro board’s finance committee is an option to raise the regular bus fare to $1.75, but instead of raising the cash fare to $2, the amount discussed March 13, the surcharge would be eliminated. Riders using SmarTrip cards or cash would pay the same $1.75 fare.

Another option for board consideration is raising the daily parking fee by 10 cents, rather than the originally discussed target of 25 cents.

The maximum fare for using the MetroAccess paratransit service could drop from $7 to $6.50, fulfilling one of several requests that riders with disabilities presented to the board during the board’s six hearings on fare increases.

Doing all those things would raise the local governments’ subsidy of Metro by $2.5 million, according to the transit staff’s estimate. How to get that back?

One idea for board consideration is raising the average Metrorail fare from 3 percent to 3.5 percent. That would generate an additional $3 million in revenue from the riders, the staff estimates.

The board members, who represent the jurisdictions served by Metro and the federal government, don’t have to do any of those things when they meet at Metro’s D.C. headquarters on Thursday, but the proposal for discussion on their agenda suggests a potential compromise between urban and suburban interests.

Riders fall into all sorts of categories, but those in the farther suburbs tend to be long-distance rail riders who park at the Metro lots and garages to begin their commutes. Transit riders who live closer to the region’s center are less likely to park and more likely to take short rail rides. They also are more likely to use Metrobus.

District representatives Tom Downs and Muriel Bowser, a D.C. Council member who is a candidate for the Democratic mayoral nomination in Tuesday’s primary, have been the most outspoken about their desire to protect bus riders.

During the board’s March 13 discussion, Catherine Hudgins of Fairfax County noted that many suburban commuters face multiple increases, because their trips may combine parking, a Metrorail trip and a bus ride.

While the board can play around with the numbers and percentages on this new list, it still must wind up with a balanced budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. That requires additional considerations about what riders are willing to pay.

A key factor is the federal government’s cut in the transit-riding subsidy that took effect at the start of 2014. The monthly subsidy for federal employees dropped from $245 to $125. As a result, the transit staff has cut its forecast of 1 percent growth in rail ridership during the 2015 fiscal year. It now anticipates that rail ridership will not grow at all. The financial effect on the transit authority is a $6 million cut in anticipated revenue from rail riders.

The Metrobus surcharge for paying with cash has implications for transit revenue as well as for riders’ finances. The surcharge originally was imposed to move riders away from cash payments and toward use of the plastic SmarTrip cards. That has an operational benefit in that boardings are faster when riders just tap their cards on the fare boxes. But the surcharge also is a revenue source for the transit budget.

When he presented his draft budget in December, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles proposed eliminating the 20 cent surcharge while raising the regular bus fare from $1.60 to $1.75. But a proposal to boost the cash fare to $2 re-emerged at the board’s March 13 meeting.

That caught the attention of Bowser, who protested that it was strictly a revenue ploy unrelated to smoother bus boardings.

“You want more money, and you want it to come from the bus riders,” she complained to her colleagues.

See also
Metro board shouldn’t decide whether rail or bus riders are more deserving.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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