Higher, flat fares to take Metro? Riders’ reaction is rough.

Robert Thomson
Columnist January 20, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I’m sure you’ve gotten many comments about the proposed Metro fare hike, and I’m sure many expressed outrage at the proposal of flat fares of $6 at rush hour and $4 at non-rush hours for paper Farecard users. Although I share that outrage, rather than just adding my voice to the chorus, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of this proposal.

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. View Archive

Undoubtedly, this would greatly increase demand for SmarTrip cards — especially once every station is equipped with a machine that sells them — as I suspect many tourists would use the cards for a few days or a week and then throw them out.

I remember reading, however, that the company that made SmarTrip is no longer producing them, so once the current supply is exhausted, the system will have to be replaced. This sounds like a major expense. Why would Metro want to hasten the time when replacement of the electronic fare system will be necessary? This sounds like a penny-wise but pound-foolish decision to me.

Jim Cohen, Bethesda

DG: So far, anger among riders has been focused on why the transit staff is proposing to charge more for a product that many riders think is declining in quality. About that, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles says that the transit system wasn’t maintained as it should have been and needs to undergo extensive repairs and upgrades that are going to cost us more money.

As a management concept, that sounds reasonable, but as a consumer concept, it doesn’t work so well. A rider says, “I don’t care about your long-term business model; I’m paying for your product today.”

There are also two ways of looking at the proposed flat fare for paper Farecards. The flat fare is supposed to make it easier for tourists to figure out the pricing system, which otherwise is based on time and distance. But the pricing is steep because Metro wants to drive more people to use the electronic SmarTrip cards.

So, which is it? Do we want paper cards to be easier to use or more difficult?

Don’t worry about the supply of SmarTrip cards, said Carol Kissal, Metro’s chief financial officer. She told me last week that Metro is on the verge of getting a new supply of chips for the cards. She expects them to start arriving in the spring. This won’t be the next generation of the electronic fare system. That’s still a ways off. Riders who buy SmarTrip cards later this year shouldn’t notice any change in the way they work, but at least they will be available.

New bridge challenge

There have been some dramatic changes for drivers as work advances on the District’s 11th Street Bridge replacement. A traveler responded to one of my statements about the new traffic pattern for the inbound span.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I disagree profoundly with your comment [Dr. G’s tips, Dec. 25] that access to Interstate 395 from northbound Interstate 295 has improved because northbound drivers no longer need to change lanes.

Although this perhaps benefits drivers from Virginia or Southeast Washington, it creates an extremely dangerous result for drivers from Maryland who for decades have been making what is essentially a U-turn at Howard Road or Suitland Parkway to cross the inbound 11th Street Bridge.

Using those exits is going to be foolhardy until the 11th Street Bridge project is completed. Careful Maryland drivers could perhaps try to use New York Avenue NE, but congestion always occurs en route to the Fourth Street NW entrance to I-395, even when there is no construction.

They could also use the East Capitol Street exit and find their way through city streets to the I-395 entrance at Third and I (Eye) streets SE. The latter choice is probably the safest and least congested, but it is also the least attractive to those who prefer safe trips on limited-access highways. The U-turn at Howard Road or Suitland Parkway has been closed off to safety-conscious drivers until the bridge project is completed.

Alan L. Seltzer, Beltsville

DG: I’m confident about the new advantage for drivers continuing north, but Seltzer is right about the new disadvantage for commuters coming south who get off the highway and make U-turns to reach the inbound bridge.

He wrote back to me with some follow-up information after we both had a chance to test these routes.

“I decided to try the U-turn on two occasions,” he said. “I thought it might be dangerous, although less so than making a U-turn on eastbound Pennsylvania Avenue to get to I-395 and less aggravating than taking New York Avenue or weaving through town to get to Third and I (Eye) streets SE.” (Those are two other routes that commuters take because the 11th Street Bridge lacks connections on southbound D.C. 295.)

“Even before leaving home, I concluded that making a U-turn at Suitland Parkway might be okay, but doing it at Howard Road, as I’ve done in the past to avoid outbound Suitland Parkway traffic, would now be a bad choice.

“This turned out to be quite correct. It’s pretty safe to use the Suitland Parkway interchange, but using the Howard Road exit and making two lefts to reenter 295 now borders on insanity. That exit is now safe for a U-turn only if one is outbound and intends to use northbound 295.”

The southbound drivers should kick the habit of making their U-turns at Howard Road and continue just a bit south to the Suitland Parkway exit. Even then, it will be difficult at rush hour to move left into the inbound bridge lanes, but at least they’ve got a fighting chance.

This will be resolved in the spring, when the new ramp from southbound 295 to the inbound bridge is scheduled to open.

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