Metro budget talks could include fare hikes larger than general manager proposed

December 5, 2013

Metro’s board of directors voted Thursday to broaden discussions on a new budget to include possible fare increases greater than those proposed by the transit agency’s general manager. But members stressed that they are still months away from deciding whether to approve any price increases.

In proposing a nearly $2.9 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning in July, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles recommended increasing rail fares by an average of 3 percent — adding about 10 cents to the cost of a typical train ride — and setting the standard bus fare at $1.75, regardless of whether a rider pays with a SmarTrip card or cash.

But the board said its wants the option to consider other combinations of fares during budget meetings and public hearings in the months ahead. Members voted to broaden the possibilities to include increasing rail fares as much as 4 percent and charging cash-paying bus passengers as much as $2.10 as a basic fare.

Thursday’s decision “doesn’t necessarily mean the board will adopt the maximum” fares that are up for possible discussion, said board member Marcel Acosta, chairman of the finance committee, who represents the federal government on the panel. “But it does give us the flexibility to consider that.”

The move was not unexpected. The board has taken similar steps in past years when formulating its budget.

If board members had voted to go ahead with public hearings on Sarles’s budget request without amending it, they would have been barred from approving fare increases greater than the ones he proposed.

Now, if members were to lower certain fares proposed in Sarles’s budget plan, they would have more latitude to raise other fares to compensate. Or if government subsidies for Metro turned out to be lower than Sarles expects, the board could make up the difference by raising fares more than he has proposed.

“I think it’s very important that we make a clear statement” that the vote does not mean that the board favors fare increases greater than those proposed by the general manager, said the board’s chairman, Tom Downs, who represents the District on the board.

Downs said he was reluctant “to scare the bejesus out of our bus customers” by even permitting discussion of a $2.10 fare. The standard bus fare is $1.80 in cash or $1.60 for riders who pay with SmarTrip cards.

Sarles’s proposal would do away with the 20-cent surcharge for passengers paying with cash and set the standard bus fare at $1.75 for everyone. Because more than 90 percent of bus riders use SmarTrip cards, according to Metro, the change would mean a 15-cent fare increase for the vast majority of passengers.

Downs said he would be hard-pressed to go along with even a 15-cent increase, let alone a bigger one. “I’m going to sound like an old, unreconstructed liberal,” he said, “but the majority of our bus riders are low-income. They’re in marginal jobs. When I’m on the bus, I’m often the only ‘suit’ on the bus.”

Muriel Bowser, a D.C. Council member, was the only Metro board member to vote against expanding budget discussions to possibly include an increase in the bus fare greater than the one recommended by Sarles. Bowser (D-Ward 4) announced months ago that she plans to run for mayor next year.

She voiced concern for the minority of bus riders who pay with cash and are charged 20 cents more than passengers using SmarTrip cards.

“I just want to state for the record that I think the general manager got it right on this one” by proposing to do away with the surcharge, Bowser said. “I don’t support it.”

Sarles’s budget request is 9 percent higher overall than Metro’s budget for the current fiscal year. Rail and bus fare revenue in his proposed spending plan is projected to total about $847 million if the fare changes he proposed are enacted.

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