Metro board approves fare increases


Passengers on Metro’s Red Line wait for the train to stop as it pulls into the Wheaton station. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Pleas from riders Thursday could not hold off an across-the-board increase in Metro’s parking fees and bus and rail fares, as the board of directors adopted increases to help overcome a deficit in the transit authority’s next budget.

The increase for rail passengers averages about 5 percent, although the actual amounts would vary greatly depending on distance. Bus fares increase by a dime for those who use electronic SmarTrip cards, rising to $1.60.

The changes are scheduled to go into effect July 1. Transit officials have said it takes about 60 days to update and test the computer systems, and crews need time to make and install new signs.

Dozens of passengers filled the boardroom at Metro’s headquarters to speak out against the impact increases would have on those who use MetroAccess, the transit authority’s service for the disabled.

The maximum charge for MetroAccess will remain $7. However, many of those riders will experience increases because rates are calculated using bus and train fares.

Advocates for the disabled said they were disappointed that the complex MetroAccess fare structure wasn’t simplified and made more affordable.

“We go to meeting after meeting to plead for you not to raise our fares,” Lois Staves, 62, of Fort Washington, told the board. “We have rights to be mobile. You take away our mobility. You crush our spirit. A person has to decide whether to go out or stay in. If you are on a fixed income you’re just stuck.”

Board members discussed the possibility of raising most fares and delaying any action that would affect MetroAccess until the rates could be studied further, but in the end they unanimously approved the increases without taking that action.

However, Metro officials said they plan to work with disabled riders to provide better online information and phone assistance on the cost of the service.

The increases come after six public hearings Metro held in February and March, where riders also expressed frustration about the poor service and delays they often encounter. For some riders, it was difficult to face that increased fares will go toward Metro’s operations and not for any new services.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said the increases provide “additional revenue for rail and bus service and to improve maintenance.” He said that although he understands the complaints, the troubled system needs the money.

“Years of not doing enough maintenance” hurt the system, Sarles said, a frequent response to criticism about Metro’s need for more revenue. Making improvements is what riders “want and deserve.” He cautioned that “it takes time to dig out of a hole.”

Metro last put in place a broad fare increase in summer 2010.

Next month, the board is expected to decide on the passage of its $2.5 billion annual operating and capital budget for fiscal 2013. Metro has projected that it will have a $103 million deficit, which officials hope to close with revenue from the fee increases and larger subsidies from local jurisdictions.

Metro’s base peak fare for rail riders will increase from $1.95 to $2.10. The maximum peak fare will increase from $5 to $5.75. The base off-peak rail fare will increase from $1.60 to $1.70.

The maximum off-peak fare will be $3.50. Parking fees at Metro lots and garages will rise by 25 cents.

Bus riders who pay cash will face a 20-cent surcharge. Metro has said it wants to push more people to use electronic SmarTrip cards because they operate more efficiently in the transit system and the transactions cost less to process.

The board eliminated a special surcharge passed in 2010, a peak-of-the-peak rail fare for traveling during the system’s busiest times.

The program was supposed to push people to ride during less-congested periods, but Metro has said that did not happen in significant numbers. Meanwhile, the peak-of-the-peak added another layer of complexity to the system’s sometimes-confusing fare structure.

Under the new plan, riders will have the option of buying a 28-day unlimited pass that will be available on electronic SmarTrip cards. The pass will cost $230 and allow a user to travel an unlimited distance at any time of the day.

Critics have complained that the pass offers no savings for regular commuters.

Metro also will eliminate its $9 one-day pass, which is valid after 9:30 a.m. on weekdays, and institute a $14 one-day pass that has no time restrictions.

The District, Maryland and Virginia are expected to contribute $669 million — up from $622 million in fiscal 2012 — as part of their operating subsidies to help run the transit system.

In other action, Metro’s board of directors approved names for eight of the 11 stations planned for the new Silver Line. The names were previously approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The stations would be named McLean, Tysons Corner, Greensboro, Spring Hill, Wiehle-Reston East, Reston Town Center, Herndon and Innovation Center.

The Silver Line’s first phase, which is under construction through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue, is expected to be completed in August 2013, with service beginning in December 2013 or January 2014. The second phase is expected to run from Reston to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County, but Loudoun officials have until July 4 to decide whether they will help pay for it. Other concerns have also dogged the project, which is being supervised by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called a meeting for Wednesday to discuss getting the project back on track.

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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