Metro to let public weigh in on Metro fare increases to close massive budget gap

Metro riders are likely to see higher fare prices this year, the transit authority’s board decided Thursday — the same day Red Line commuters faced a long and chaotic morning rush period because of a broken rail on the system’s busiest line.

The board voted to put proposals of fare increases for rail and bus, plus a 5-cent surcharge on two stations in each jurisdiction, to riders in public hearings that would address how to pay for proposed station improvements. Metro’s board will also float a plan for two 28-day rail passes. The board’s resolution does not endorse a specific amount for fare increases.

The board, facing a $116 million shortfall in Metro’s next budget, must approve a plan for fiscal 2013 by July 1. Metro expects to hold public hearings next month and in March, officials said, and is working with possible venues to determine times and locations.

General Manager Richard Sarles had proposed a menu of changes earlier this month, including increasing fares by an average of about 5 percent, raising parking fees, eliminating a rush-hour surcharge and asking local jurisdictions to increase their subsidies for the $1.6 billion operating plan. Under Sarles’s plan, the actual increases experienced by riders could vary greatly.

Sarles had also pushed for an end to paper Farecards. Currently, Metro has several types: One is a seven-day pass for unlimited rides, known as a “fast pass,” which costs $47. Another is a seven-day pass that costs $32.35 and can be used for short trips in peak times and unlimited travel at other times.

Sarles had pushed for eliminating a $9 all-day pass and the $32.35 short pass to try to push riders to use electronic SmarTrip cards, which officials have said are more efficient than paper Farecards. Only 4 percent of Metro’s rail riders use passes, according to Dan Stessel, the authority’s chief spokesman.

But Metro’s finance chief, Carol Kissal, warned that changes in rail passes could not be implemented with the existing SmarTrip electronic card technology by July 1 , when many of the new fare prices would go into effect. She said Metro needs to review whether SmarTrip technology could be programmed to accommodate the passes the board wants to consider or whether paper passes would still have to be used.

Riders have criticized possible fare increases, saying the service Metro delivers is substandard.

A meltdown on the Red Line on Thursday morning illustrated the point just as the board heard a report on Metro’s progress in meeting safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration.

At about 6:30 a.m., a rail operator reported a cracked rail on the Red Line’s inbound track between Friendship Heights and Tenleytown-AU stations, Stessel said. By about 12:30, crews had replaced a 40-foot piece of rail.

Dave Kubicek, Metro’s deputy general manager, said the rail was on an “older piece” of track, although he couldn’t pinpoint its exact age.

He apologized to customers for the inconvenience but also said the cracked rail was an example of the problems on the aged transit system.

“We’re in catch-up mode,” he said. “This is why we’re pushing forward on our capital program.Over the years the focus has been on running trains . . . Now we have to make sure we have good, quality maintenance done.

Some riders reported normal trips of 15 minutes taking more than an hour. And passengers still had to pay normal fares.

Joe Graham, who was trying to get to his job downtown Thursday morning from Friendship Heights, said he was frustrated as three trains that were headed toward Shady Grove passed.

“It’s disappointing how Metro management handles things,” he said.

Board member Mort Downey, who has decades of transit experience helping run agencies and as a consultant, said he was more concerned about two recent incidents where brake assemblies have fallen off rail cars.

“Rails do crack,” he said after the board meeting. “It is something that happens.

But, he said, “Friction rings falling off cars is something I’ve never heard of.”

Kubicek told the board that an examination of the hub — part of a rail car’s brake assembly system — that broke and fell off a 5000 series rail car on Dec. 20 showed that a “component failed due to metal fatigue.”

Since the incident, Metro officials said crews have replaced 680 similar parts on the 5000 series rail cars and 570 brake assemblies on the 2000, 3000 and 4000 series cars. He said the manufacturer, Knorr Brake, has paid forthe parts and Metro has paid for the labor.

On Jan. 6, another friction ring fell off a rail car. Metro has sent the parts to an independent lab for review. Kubicek said he doesn’t know the cause of the second incident.

Staff writer Mark Berman contributed to this report.

Dana Hedgpeth is a Post reporter, working the early morning, reporting on traffic, crime and other local issues.

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