Metro finance committee approves fare hikes

Metro’s finance committee approved Thursday increases in fees paid by bus and rail riders and drivers who use the transit authority’s parking facilities.

It was the board’s first official step following recent public hearings on fare hikes that average about 5 percent. The actual amounts would vary widely depending on the distance that a rider travels. The changes would go into effect July 1.

The full Metro board is expected to vote at its April 26 meeting on whether to raise fares. Metro officials said it takes about 60 days to update and test the computer systems, and crews need time to make and install new signs. In May, the board is expected to decide on the passage of its $2.5 billion annual operating and capital budget for fiscal 2013.

The finance committee’s move comes after Metro officials revised last week their budget numbers for fiscal 2013, projecting that the transit authority would have a $103 million deficit, which is $16 million less than previously estimated. Metro said it was able to reduce its deficit because of administrative cost cuts and rosier expectations of revenue from riders.

“The finance committee took into account the improved outlook for revenue and additional cost-cutting,” Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said. “That allowed them to lower the amount of money we needed from customers.”

Metro’s plans call for eliminating the peak-of-the-peak surcharge for rail riders who travel during the subway’s busiest times. Officials have said the surcharge was an attempt to lessen congestion, but it failed to persuade riders to change their commuting habits. And officials have sought to eliminate the thousands of combinations of possible fares.

“This reminds me of the U.S. tax code,” said Tom Downs, a board member appointed by the federal government. “We need a fare structure that is simple and predictable. If we keep making fare changes like this every time, we’re making it much more complex for customers. Pretty soon, we’ll have to have a concierge to help get people through because [the fare system] is too complex.”

Many riders at public hearings expressed frustration at fare increases when they endure poor service on the regional bus and rail system every day.

The biggest change for rail riders would be the ability to buy a 28-day, unlimited pass for the first time in Metro’s history. The new pass, which would be available on electronic SmarTrip cards, would cost $230 and would allow a user to travel unlimited distance any time of the day.

But the pass might appeal to only the heaviest users of Metro. The rate equates to what a commuter traveling the farthest distances under the new fare structure would pay for 20 round trips. By comparison, New York subway riders can buy a 30-day pass for $104.

Metro’s base fare for rail riders would increase from $1.95 to $2.10. The maximum peak fare would increase from $5 to $5.75. The base off-peak rail fare would increase from $1.60 to $1.70. The maximum off-peak fare would be $3.50. Bus fares would increase by a dime, rising to $1.60 for those who use SmarTrip cards. Parking fees would rise by 25 cents.

Bus riders who pay cash would face a 20-cent surcharge. Metro has said it wants to push more people to use electronic Farecards because they are more efficient and transactions cost less to process.

For rail riders who use paper Farecards, Sarles had proposed a one-way flat fare that was $6 for rush hour and $4 for off-peak times. Now Metro is suggesting a $1 surcharge for paper cards.

Metro’s board supported a move to hold the line on its maximum fare charges for MetroAccess, its shuttle service for the disabled, at $7. But some users will experience increases since the calculations for the service are based on rail and bus fares.

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.

Under the latest proposal, Metro also would 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.

Many board members expressed concern that Metro needs to provide a larger discount to riders using an existing pass. Metro wants to charge $10 more, or $57.50, for a 7-day rail pass on a SmarTrip card. Finance officials said the spike was necessary because that type of pass had been overlooked when fare hikes went into effect in fiscal 2011.

The various types of passes — including the one-day pass — are used by 4 percent of rail passengers, Metro said.

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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