How proposed Metro fare changes could affect riders

Robert Thomson
Columnist January 13, 2012

Metro board member James Dyke’s first chance to comment on the transit staff’s proposed fare increases was also his first chance to offer formal greetings to fellow board members.

“Nice soft start” to a job, their newest colleague told them as they began to pick apart the proposals.

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

Though Dyke is the board’s most recent addition, the majority of his colleagues have just a slight advantage on him in seniority, given the dramatic turnover in membership last year. In fact, only a handful of the current board members were serving in 2010, the last time the panel approved fare increases.

The riders are going to have to help them through this. But the board has not decided on the range of proposals it will send out for public hearings. These are some of the issues the board began to struggle with during its discussion Thursday.

General manager’s budget

Metro’s budget season always starts the same way. In the winter, the general manager makes his proposals for fare increases or service cuts, the board accepts some ideas and shreds others, then sets up public hearings. After reviewing the riders’ comments, the board tinkers some more, then votes by June on a budget that takes effect July 1.

This year, General Manager Richard Sarles proposed no service cuts. But he did propose changes in fares that could please riders who travel at certain peak times or use bike lockers, but the changes would generally mean people would pay more to park, ride buses, or travel by train. He said rush-hour SmarTrip rail fares would increase by an average of less than 5 percent.

Peak of the peak

The best idea in the budget is the proposed elimination of the peak-of-the-peak fare, the ­20-cent surcharge for Metrorail travel at the height of rush hour. Sarles said the peak of the peak was designed to raise revenue and to manage congestion. In theory, it created a financial incentive for riders to avoid the most crowded times.

“That simply didn’t happen,” Sarles told the board members, but “we certainly complicated the fare system.”

Commuters have been saying that they’re pretty much locked into their travel times. If they could respond to an incentive, the idea of escaping crowded trains would have provided it long ago.

Flat fares

Paper is so 20th century. Metro is steering people from paper fare cards in favor of electronic ­SmarTrip cards, which are now used by most riders. Sarles proposed to further isolate the fare card by charging a flat fee of $4 for off-peak travel and $6 for rush-hour.

You might look at that as a user-friendly fare. Occasional riders, who are more likely to use the paper fare cards, wouldn’t have to waste time staring at the charts on the vending machines to calculate a fare down to the nickel.

But this is really sticking it to the tourists and other occasional riders. A family of four, traveling off-peak, would pay $32 for a round-trip between Union Station and Smithsonian, stations that are less than two miles apart.

The transit staff wants people to consider buying SmarTrip cards, so they’d pay the $5 fee for the card, then load fare value on top of that. If that family of four is in town for a few days, the investment would start to be worthwhile, but it still represents an initial payment of $20 just to get everyone a card.

Rounding fares

Sarles proposed a 10-cent increase in the Metrobus fare for SmarTrip users, so their rides would cost $1.60. But for the ­­15 percent of riders who pay cash, their fare would be rounded up to the nearest dollar, which means they’d pay $2.

The upside is that a rider wouldn’t have to fish for change and then pour the coins into the fare box. That also would have the effect of speeding the bus boarding process. But D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser ­(D-Ward 4), who represents the District on the Metro board, pointed out that for these riders, “rounding” means a huge fare increase.

Parking and biking

Riders, particularly those in the suburbs, won’t find anything to like about the proposed ­25-cent increase in the parking fees at Metro lots and garages. But down toward the bottom of the general manager’s list, there are a couple of proposals that would benefit people who take their cars or bikes to the stations.

Sarles said he wants the flexibility to adjust the monthly charges for reserved parking and the number of spaces available to match demand, which can vary among stations.

Riders have complained that the waiting lists for reserved parking are long at some stations, while others are frustrated when they see many reserved spaces empty in an otherwise crowded garage.

Sarles acknowledged that the fee for bike lockers at stations was set too high. At $200 annually, the fee discouraged users. He would drop the charge to $120 a year.

Board battles

Because so many board members are relatively new, they faced challenges in determining what they were required to put on the agenda for public hearings. Metro rules say the board must hold formal hearings on proposals to increase fares and fees or to cut services. Board members have other good ideas — such as privatizing the Metro parking system — that should be explored, but those don’t need to be listed on the agenda for these hearings.

Aside from getting straight on their own rules, some board members picked out particular targets in the general manager’s proposal. After correctly calling out “rounding” as “a fare increase” on some bus riders, Bowser managed to associate herself with the hated peak-of-the-peak surcharge. She said she didn’t understand turning aside ­$12 million in Metro revenue collected from the peak-of-the-peak fares. She linked this “give back” to rail riders with the extra fares bus riders would pay. “I don’t get that trade-off,” she said.

Mortimer Downey, a federal representative on the board, was “not really thrilled with the $6” flat fare. Occasional users would be paying the highest fare in the system, he said. Downey worried that many of those people would float to taxicabs and the ­D.C. Circulator buses as cheaper alternatives to Metro. Tom Downs, another District representative, noted that visitors no longer have the alternative of using the now-suspended Tourmobile service.

Several board members said they wanted to know exactly how the Metrorail fare increases would affect specific trips.

That’s just a sampler. The full board will take up the budget proposal again at its meeting on Jan. 26, and it probably will add more options to the agenda for the public hearing.

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