Metro proposes 5 percent fare increase


Monika Beene, left, stands as her daughter, Cheyenne Welch, 2, rides in a seat as they travel by the Metro red line on Monday. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Metro proposes to increase bus and rail fares by about 5 percent, raise parking rates and eliminate a controversial rush-hour surcharge this summer to overcome a $116 million shortfall in its next operating budget.

The actual amount of increases would vary by trip, but riders who use paper Farecards would face the biggest change. Whether going two stops or 10, they would pay one-way flat fares: $6 during rush hour, $4 in off-peak times. For a group traveling together, hailing a taxi might quickly become more palatable.

The last fare increase was two years ago, and it was the broadest in Metro’s history. An increase this year is likely to be unpopular because the system struggles daily with service disruptions — some planned, and others not. Riders face delays because of train malfunctions and other issues. In the past three weeks, brake parts have fallen off two rail cars.

The additional revenue won’t alleviate the system’s chronic problems with its escalators or increase trains on the Red Line. Covering the shortfall will just keep the buses and trains running at the current level of service.

“Years of not spending enough money on maintenance” have hurt the system, said Metro General Manager Richard Sarles. “You can’t turn that around overnight. Better is not free. And as we are playing catch-up and building a better Metro that benefits all our stakeholders, we are asking everyone to contribute.”

Riders would pay more round-the-clock under the proposed $1.6 billion operating budget for fiscal 2013, which Sarles plans to present to the board of directors Thursday. Any changes to fares would require public hearings and additional board discussion.

Every year, staff members and the board at the regional transit authority debate whether to cut service, raise fares or go to the local jurisdictions for more money. The final budget often involves a combination.

Because the new revenue would generate only about $66 million, local governments — which provide hundreds of millions of dollars to support Metro each year — would also have to increase their contributions to the transit authority by a total of $53 million.

Metro officials, however, are promoting the simplification of fares as a plus. The new fare structure would eliminate the “peak-of-the-peak” rate, in which passengers pay a surcharge for riding the subway during the busiest weekday periods. It was implemented with the last round of fare increase, in 2010, to ease crowding and encourage riders to use trains just outside the peak periods, but the strategy failed, Sarles said.

“We weren’t accomplishing our policy objective, and we were just complicating the fare,” he said.

The details

The proposed budget would increase rail fares in rush-hour periods by an average of less than 5 percent for those using Smar­Trip cards, according to Metro. The maximum peak fare would rise from $5 to $5.75.

Rail riders would also see changes in off-peak fares. The base fare would increase to $1.70, from $1.60, a trip. The maximum off-peak fare would be $3.50.

Sarles plans to pitch a flat fare for paper cards on the rail system, using the hefty increase to try to push riders to use SmarTrip electronic Farecards. Only about 17 percent of Metro’s riders use paper Farecards, which are less efficient than SmarTrip, said Metro chief spokesman Dan Stessel. Paper day passes now make it possible to travel throughout the rail system after 9:30 a.m. and on Saturdays, Sundays and some federal holidays for $9.

“This is a combination of simplifying fares and continuing to push people to use SmarTrip — while gaining some revenue — all so we can keep maintaining the system and making up for years of neglect and not investing in the system,” Sarles said.

Bus fares would increase by a dime, from $1.50 to $1.60. Cash payments would be rounded to the nearest dollar for buses.

Parking fees at Metro lots and garages would jump 25 cents.

Fares for riders who use MetroAccess, the transit agency’s door-to-door shuttle service for the disabled, would rise from $7 to a maximum of $7.40 per one-way trip.

The board of directors will review Sarles’s proposal during a finance committee meeting Thursday. Any changes in rates would go before public hearings in late February and March, and the board would have to vote on a final budget of about $2.5 billion, which would include about $996 million for capital expenditures such as upgrading tracks and implementing government safety recommendations. The capital funds come from states, local jurisdictions and the federal government.

Key dates

Most rate changes would go into effect July 1, when the next fiscal year starts, but the flat rate for paper cards could go into effect after Labor Day to allow Metro more time to install Smar­Trip vending machines in the 49 rail stations that don’t have them, officials said.

The financial projections are complicated by Metro’s expectation that rail ridership will drop to 213 million riders a year, from an expected 217 million in fiscal 2012. Bus ridership is expected to be slack and possibly down slightly.

Metro officials attribute the rail decline to the slowly recovering economy. However, some passengers may also be growing weary of riding trains that are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter; facing escalators that often don’t work; and dealing with service delays that can turn normal commutes into chaotic marathons.

Metro has an aggressive capital plan to refurbish the basics of the rail system, but even that is taking a toll on riders, who face station closures and long waits for trains on weekends to accommodate the work.

Metro staff would need some lead time to implement the changes and install new signs, but a smooth transition could also be complicated by other changes planned for the summer.

The transit authority plans to change service on the Blue, Yellow and Orange lines to ease crowding at the Rosslyn station and to help make way for service on the new Silver Line, which is scheduled to open in December 2013.

The complexity of the software programming for the last increase and the introduction of peak-of-the-peak rates led to confusion at the fare gates and required Metro to delay some of the changes.

‘A continuation’

For fiscal 2013, Metro expects revenue to hit $875 million, including the income from the fare increases. Jurisdictions would have to contribute $675 million, up from $622 million in fiscal 2012, to help meet operating expenses of $1.6 billion. The biggest increases in costs include $55 million from increased labor and pension expenses; $35 million for some system improvements, including preventive maintenance work on escalators and elevators and more bus security; and $11 million to, in part, hire more people to help curb worker fatigue from excess overtime.

Another $20 million would go toward hiring staff and preparing Metro for the opening of the Silver Line rail extension through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

Sarles also wants to add between 20 and 30 Metro Transit Police officers to the force of 450. The officers would focus on bus security. A unit of 22 officers is now responsible for more than 300 bus routes.

“This budget is a continuation of what we’ve been doing in focusing on a state of good repair for the system and safety while also paying for the operating and capital costs,” he said.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles will join staff writer Dana Hedgpeth and transportation columnist Robert Thomson in a Google+ Hangout at 1 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the proposed fare increases and other Metro issues. Go to washingtonpost.com/drgridlock washingtonpost.com/drgridlock. Want to submit a question? Send it to drgridlock@washpost.comdrgridlock@washpost.com, or tweet it to @drgridlock or @postmetrogirl. Use #gridchat.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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