Proposed Metro fare increase is subject of public hearings

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the last name of a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board member. She is Kathy Porter, not Kathy Potter. This version has been corrected.

February 27, 2012

About two dozen Metro riders raised their concerns Monday night about proposed fare increases to fill a $116 million gap in the transit agency’s next budget and suggested that Metro get the money from local jurisdictions, not from riders.

The public hearing in Bethesda was the first in a series of meetings over the next two weeks in which Metro officials and board members are seeking feedback before the board debates and passes a balanced budget by July 1.

General Manager Richard Sarles has proposed an across-the-board increase that would hit rail, bus and paratransit riders and raise fees for station parking. The increases are projected to generate $66 million, and local jurisdictions would be asked to give another $53 million to help balance the authority’s $1.6 billion budget.

Metro last imposed a sweeping fare increase in 2010.

Dean Wilkinson of Glenmont said he is “disturbed” every time fares go up because the service seems to deteriorate further.

“Until service improves, don’t ask us to pay more,” he said.

Sarles has said the aging rail system is suffering from years of neglect. Metro has launched a six-year, $5 billion capital improvement program to replace escalators, swap out rails and install new track equipment.

This year, Metro has also said it faces rising labor and pension costs for its 11,000 workers. The new budget also proposes to hire more than 850 workers to operate the Silver Line and for other needs.

The Bethesda hearing had an open house where Metro staffers were on hand to answer the public’s questions before the public testimony. Two of Metro’s top officials — its chief financial officer and the head of its bus division — along with board members Michael Barnes and Kathy Porter, attended the public hearing. Riders also expressed concerns about Metro’s safety and the escalators at Bethesda, which often do not work.

Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said at the hearing that Metro should consider ways to reduce its personnel and pension costs. “You have to figure out a way to bend the pension cost curve down, or it will crowd out future services,’’ he said.

Stacey Rose-Blass of North Bethesda said she rides daily from Glenmont to Foggy Bottom and thinks Metro could save money with a simple fix: Cut off the heat on trains and buses in the system.

“Who are you keeping warm? The drivers,” she said. “We’re all bundled up in coats.”

She said she was concerned about how Metro is spending money. “We’re paying more and more, and it is just not getting better.”

The authority’s board of directors decided last month to include many options in the menu of changes for riders to consider. The board will debate possible changes in coming weeks but must pass a balanced budget before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

One of the biggest changes proposed by Sarles is to eliminate the 20-cent peak-of-the-peak surcharge riders face during the system’s busiest times. Metro said the policy, enacted during the 2010 increases, was intended to persuade some riders to move their trips to less busy times, but the strategy failed.

Under Sarles’s proposal, rail riders would see a 5 percent increase, on average, but the actual amount would vary depending on distance and the time of the day. Bus fares would increase by 10 cents to $1.60 for those using electronic SmarTrip cards.

Sarles has also proposed a flat fare — $6 for peak, $4 for off-peak — for riders using paper Farecards, a move intended to push them to use SmarTrip cards. Metro has said the plastic cards, which hold stored value, are more efficient to use in stations and to process. Metro would also increase the fees for MetroAccess, its door-to-door shuttle service for the disabled. Those fares would rise from $7 to $7.40. Parking fees would increase 25 cents.

Francine White of Upper Marlboro, who said she regularly uses MetroAccess services, told Metro officials at the hearing that “40 cents might seem nominal, but to individuals like myself who are on a fixed income, it is a significant impact.”

For a complete list of hearings, visit wapo.st/wmatafares.

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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