Metro proposes no fare hikes in fiscal 2014


A metro train pulls into the McPherson Square station. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A year after Metro announced fares increases across the board for rail and bus riders, the transit agency is expected to announce this week that it is not planning a fare hike for the coming fiscal year.

Metro’s proposed budget outlines plans to continue fixing its run-down tracks, to upgrade its power system so it can run more eight-car trains and to add more express bus routes in the region.

Richard Sarles, the transit agency’s general manager, is expected to present his $2.5 billion operating and capital spending plan on Thursday to the agency’s board of directors.

Last year, despite rider complaints, the board approved a rate increase that averaged 5 percent. This year, there are no proposed fare hikes (or service cuts), which is not a surprise given Metro’s 2008 decision to make fare changes every two years. That policy went into effect in 2010.

A draft of the proposed 2014 budget lays out a $1.65 billion operating budget and $875 million capital budget. The agency is expected to have a $27 million budget deficit, which the District, Maryland and Virginia will be expected to pick up.

The fiscal 2014 operating budget includes $4.4 million to add more limited-stop buses in parts of the region, $50 million to train personnel and begin operating the new Silver Line, and $17 million for a program to manage Metro workers’ fatigue after criticism about employees working too much overtime.

“There’s no service cuts and no fare hike proposed, so this should be a happy time for people,” Sarles said in an interview. “Riders will see the introduction of the Silver Line service and six or seven bus lines with limited extra service.”

Unlike most other big cities, where transit ridership is rising, Metro has seen a decline.

Metro’s ridership was down 4.5 percent from July through October compared with the same time period in 2011. Transit agency officials said the drop was caused by lower tax benefits from the federal government, fare increases and the closure of the system for almost two days after Hurricane Sandy.

Even with Congress increasing the pre-tax benefit to $240 from $125 for rail and bus riders as part of the fiscal cliff resolution last week, Metro expects that revenue from ridership will be $14 million lower for fiscal 2014 than it had projected. Revenue for fiscal 2013 is expected to be down $25 million, according to Metro officials.

Sarles said the region’s passengers faced “quite a hit” last year with fare increases and the cut in the transit benefit, noting that 40 percent of peak period travelers are federal employees whose rides are subsidized.

Even with the benefit increased for this year, he said, “sometimes you lose people and you don’t get them back, but we are hoping most of the people come back.”

Metro’s capital budget includes spending $150 million for a new radio communications system. The agency says the Federal Communications Commission has required it to move its system to a new radio frequency band.

The capital budget also includes plans to replace and rehabilitate 175 escalators and 57 elevators, to buy 600 new buses, to buy 1,200 new vehicles for MetroAccess, and to purchase rail cars to replace the aging 1000 series and 4000 series. The first of Metro’s newest rail cars — the 7000 series — are expected to begin arriving at the end of the year as it prepares to open the Silver Line. Riders will likely see the new rail cars in use in mid-2014.

Metro also plans to spend $40 million over the next six years to upgrade its power system and infrastructure so it can run more eight-car trains.

Sarles said the agency was having outside safety tests done on its signals and automatic control system to see when it could go back into operation. Trains have operated in manual mode since the deadly 2009 Red Line crash. Sarles said he was not prepared to say when trains would go back to automatic until he got the test results at the end of the year.

He said riders would continue to see some weekend work on tracks but that it will gradually become “less intensive.” “We have to do preventative maintenance,” he said. “We have to do reconstruction. There will always be times when we have to do single tracking or take track out. But it won’t be as intensive. We have to maintain this place.”

Frank DeBernardo, a Prince George’s County member of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, said: “It’s good there’s no fare increases, but riders want to see improved service with fewer delays on trains and buses. They want a system that runs efficiently.”

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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