Some unresolved issues in Metro fare increases


Metro, and its riders, will be taking a closer look at the impact of new fares and fees. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

The fare hike for Metrorail and Metrobus is a done deal, but the Metro board left some important issues unresolved when it voted Thursday. Board members took note of them in the resolution that accompanied the vote on fares.

Bus fares. The Metro board acknowledged that its changes in the Metrobus fares won’t resolve questions about how best to serve low-income riders. So the board set itself the mission of reaching out to governments and agencies in the D.C. region to figure out how to help those least able to afford transit.

The simple setting of fares is way too broad an instrument to address the legitimate concern about people who don’t have cars and depend on transit but have trouble with the cost. When the transit authority is trying to meet deadlines on approving its annual budget, revenue imperatives tend to collide with service needs. In that environment of haste, revenue almost always wins.

During this budget season, which began in December with the draft budget presented by General Manager Richard Sarles, two issues on bus fares got mashed together: What’s the proper bus fare relative to the rail fare? Should the bus fare include a surcharge on people who pay cash rather than use the SmarTrip electronic payment cards?

The first question is more than a matter of transit equity. The D.C. region’s core makes more use of Metrobuses than the outer suburbs, and Metro board members who represent the various jurisdictions tend to protect the interests of those riders, no matter what their incomes. Over several decades, the bus and rail fares have diverged. In 1991, the basic boarding charge for Metrobus and Metrorail was $1. By 2012, the basic bus fare had risen to $1.60, but the boarding charge for Metrorail had risen to $2.10.

Along the way, Metro imposed a surcharge that made the cash fare for buses $1.80. The motive was to move riders away from cash and toward SmarTrip, but it also helped to raise revenue. In December, General Manager Richard Sarles proposed eliminating the surcharge and setting the fare for all bus riders at $1.75. So SmarTrip users would pay 15 cents more and cash users would pay a nickel less. It’s about a 9 percent increase for SmarTrip users, the vast majority of bus riders. That’s what the board settled on last week. (The average fare for Metrorail riders, which is bigger than the boarding charge, is going up 3 percent, from $2.90 to $3.)

But Metro can’t price it’s way to public justice. There are just too many factors to consider in setting fares. The surcharge was very successful at pushing people to use SmarTrip cards. That speeds up the boarding process, because people just tapped the cards on the fare boxes instead of dropping in coins. Will eliminating the surcharge result in a surge in cash payments? At least it will be easier to drop in seven quarters than to find that extra nickel to make $1.80.

Without the pressure of balancing its own budget, the board should now engage the jurisdictions in collectively helping low-income riders keep their personal transit budgets in balance.

MetroAccess. Same here. Riders with disabilities, who made their attention-getting case at the public hearings on the fare increases, won a concession from the board that cuts their maximum fare from $7 to $6.50. But the transit authority had to work hard a few years ago to bring MetroAccess costs under control. The cost of providing a paratransit trip is $56.97. If there should be another big increase in customers for paratransit rides, the impact on Metro’s future budgets will be severe.

So Metro needs the metro region to help figure out how to provide paratransit services in a financially sustainable way. Among the questions for deeper discussion: Is MetroAccess the most effective way to get people with disabilities to their jobs, medical appointments and other destinations? It’s not simply a question of spreading around the financial burden of MetroAccess.

Prince George’s parking. While riders who park at Metro lots and garages regionwide will pay an extra 10 cents, those who use some of the parking facilities in Prince George’s County will pay an additional 60 cents. That’s because the county asked the Metro board to approve a 50 cent surcharge on daily parking that the county could use to spur development around the stations. This is a good cause, in that development around many of the Prince George’s stations has lagged behind what’s happened in the rest of the region.

Still, this is quite a shock to many riders, who will absorb the 60-cent parking fee increase, plus the Metrorail fare increase. Three stations are exempt from the surcharge: Addison Road, Landover and Prince George’s Plaza. But that still leaves plenty who will pay a lot more for their commutes.

So the Metro board is asking that by June 1, Prince George’s County formally describe what surcharge will be used for before spending any of the money collected. The parking surcharge drew few comments during Metro’s public hearings this winter, but at the end of June, it will push the cost of parking to $5.10 a day at many of the lots and garages in the county, so expect a rise in interest in exactly how that extra money will be spent.

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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