Metro riders may face smaller fare hike


A map of the underground Metro in the Washington region. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Metro riders may face smaller fare hikes than planned this year, according to transit officials, who say they have found $16 million in savings and more ridership revenue to help cover a projected shortfall in their next budget.

Faced with an estimated $119 million deficit for fiscal 2013, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles had proposed larger subsidies from area governments and an across-the-board fare hike for rail and bus riders that averaged about 5 percent but varied widely depending on individual trips.

Metro staff members plan to present new budget numbers to the transit authority’s board of directors during a finance committee meeting Thursday.

“Riders may see less-than-expected fare increases,” said Bill Greene, managing director of Metro’s Office of Management and Budget.

On Friday, Metro officials would not release specifics, saying they were still working on at least a half-dozen proposals.

At six public hearings in February and March, riders complained about the prospect of having to pay higher rates despite poor customer service, escalators that don’t move, train malfunctions and frequent delays. The transit system imposed a wide-ranging fare increase two years ago.

The Metro board is expected to pass its roughly $2.5 billion operating and capital budget in early summer. Any changes in fares probably would go into effect in July.

Metro officials said the agency faces a $103 million operating budget deficit. They said the deficit reduction came from $7 million in cost cuts, including using a $2 million surplus from fiscal 2011 to add bus service in Northern Virginia. Other savings include $3 million in the contract for MetroAccess, the door-to-door service for the disabled, and the rest in reducing consulting contracts for engineering services, officials said.

Dan Stessel, chief spokesman for Metro, said the “actual cost to operate [MetroAccess] is projected to come in less than budgeted in 2012.” He said the fiscal 2013 budget is “adjusted based on these actuals.”

“This good news allows [us] to consider a range of options that reduce the burden on both riders and taxpayers,” Marcel C. Acosta, who heads the Metro board finance committee, said in a statement.

But the remaining deficit still means Metro probably will seek a combination of fee increases and additional support from the District, Maryland and Virginia, which already provide more than $600 million in operating subsidies based on ridership calculations, the number of rail stations in each jurisdiction and other factors.

Metro also revised its ridership forecasts to be more optimistic.

Those estimates, based on population and job growth, now call for 11 million more passenger trips on bus and rail and MetroAccess. That increase in passengers will help in part to generate $9 million more in revenue, Metro says.

In November, Metro had predicted a drop in ridership that would cause revenue to decline by $3 million.

Then, the “outlook was pretty grim,” on population, job growth and hotel rooms sold — the factors used to predict transit ridership, Greene said.

But based on projections from Moody’s, Metro now expects ridership will hover at 353 million passenger trips a year for 2013 — consistent with its predictions for this year.

“It is not that things are getting that much better, but they’re not as bad,” Greene said. He said higher gas prices are also creating a “bit of an uptick” in rail ridership projections.

Metro typically updates its ridership and revenue forecasts in the fall and spring, as the board is considering a new budget, he said.

Joshua Schank, an urban planner and transportation expert with the Eno Transportation Foundation, said transit agencies are “notorious about being cagey about the assumptions they put in” to get to their forecasts.

“It ends up being a black box,” he said, “because you can’t really know every assumption and how accurate it is. It is an art, not a science.”

Another challenge, Schank said, is that transit agencies don’t want to be too rosy or too pessimistic in their predictions because they often must depend on riders for revenue and local governments for subsidies.

“It’s like weather forecasting,” he said. “You can’t really nail it down. Your goal is to try to get assumptions that are most favorable to Metro.”

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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