Metro rider’s protest: Charge minimum for minimal service

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 25, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Fed up with Metrorail’s consistent lack of service and rising fare prices, I wanted to start an action that, instead of blindly calling for a system fix, would treat Metro like a business. The petition I’ve started on Change.org rallies around a simple idea:

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

When Metro provides riders minimal service, it should charge the minimum fare.

Commuters should not have to pay up to $5.75 to be late to work or have their station closed. I hope that it can be a common-sense proposal for Washington’s transportation system and an incentive for WMATA to keep service at its best. It’s not difficult: If riders enter the system and an unscheduled major delay occurs, they pay a lower fare.

— Jonathan Rice, Bethesda

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The Change.org Web site allows users to start petitions and collect signatures. You can find Rice’s petition by searching for “WMATA Metrorail.” Rice told me he is a rising senior political studies major at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who has spent the summer at home, commuting to Dupont Circle for an internship.

“Each time I return, it just seems as if service has deteriorated even further,” he said, citing spotty service, broken escalators, problems with closing train doors. “This summer is the first time that I’ve had to use Metro to commute every day of the workweek, and that has opened my eyes to the weaknesses of the system.”

He said the idea for the fare reduction stemmed from the experience of arriving at the fare gates after leaving a train that was late or was too hot, then looking down in shock to see the amount of money just deleted from his SmarTrip card.

“ ‘Minimal Service, Minimum Fare’ is a fair solution for customers and an incentive for Metro to keep service up,” he said.

I have mixed feelings about the proposal but completely understand the sentiment and know that it is shared by many riders.

What bothers me about the proposal is that it would punish the taxpayers who subsidize the Metro system, cutting the revenue that somewhat offsets their contributions. If revenue dropped, the local governments would be asked to make it up. If they didn’t, service would deteriorate further.

Also, I’m not sure how a rebate program would work. Would riders get to decide when they experienced minimal service?

“The point,” Rice said, “is that Metro should be thinking about how it treats customers who deal with system problems beyond just thanking us for our patience.”

Good answer.

And about the taxpayers, he said: “A reliable and well-run public-transit system is a benefit to the entire public. Taxpayers will be carrying some weight either way.”

What strikes me is that riders need to rally behind some cause. Despite all their complaints about service over the past several years, there’s really not much going on to suggest that politicians are listening.

“I’m not arguing that it’s a perfect plan,” Rice said, “but I do hope that it is the beginning of a greater conversation.”

No more hybrids

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I have clean-fuel license plates that were issued for my hybrid before that practice was ended. These still allow me to drive in the high- occupancy vehicle lanes even if I’m carrying no passengers. Will these old plates be grandfathered into the high-occupancy toll lanes?

— Chris Bassford, Woodbridge

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No, there won’t be a hybrid exemption from the carpool rules on either the Capital Beltway or Interstate 95 HOT lanes.

The 495 Express Lanes project will open four new Beltway lanes by the end of the year. The 95 Express Lanes project, scheduled to open by the end of 2014, will convert the I-95 HOV lanes to HOT lanes and extend the system farther south.

In each case, hybrids will be treated like other cars: All will need an E-ZPass transponder. Those that don’t meet the carpool rules must pay the toll.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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