Even With Gas at $3 a Gallon, Metro Isn't Much of a Bargain

Taking Metro might be more relaxing than driving, but it won't necessarily save you much money.
Taking Metro might be more relaxing than driving, but it won't necessarily save you much money. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Albert B. Crenshaw
Sunday, October 16, 2005

With gasoline around $3 a gallon, there is a lot of talk about how families can cut down on driving. Advice includes switching to public transportation, leaving the SUV at home.

But while that may be a socially desirable, even patriotic, thing to do, commuters in the Washington area, and probably other big cities with mass transit systems, shouldn't expect to see big savings simply from jumping onto Metro.

Family transportation economics are complex, but an important fact to remember if you're trying to save money is that even if the vehicle sits around with the engine off, gasoline represents only part of the cost of a car, truck or SUV. A larger share stems from capital costs, insurance and other expenses that don't go away. That means savings from switching to public transit may be modest or even nonexistent unless you switch so completely that you can get rid of your car or one of your cars entirely. If you can do that, you may well find a good bit more money in your pocket.

Let's look at some numbers, some from the AAA motor club and some I've extrapolated from their figures, which are based on lower gas prices.

The AAA figured last year, when gas was relatively cheap -- about $1.94 a gallon -- that driving a new Dodge minivan 15,000 miles would cost $8,293 for the year, including about $1,335 for gas. AAA figured in maintenance, tires, insurance, license, registration, taxes, depreciation and finance charges. AAA apparently assumed, though it didn't specifically say so, that the van got around 22 miles per gallon.

At $2.90 a gallon, the cost of gasoline over 15,000 miles would climb to $2,002, pushing the overall cost of a year of driving to $8,960.

Cutting that back to 10,000 miles a year by taking Metro would shave $667 off your gas costs, and the AAA figures it would cut your depreciation, through reduced wear and tear, by $925. Of course, a saving of $1,592 is not to be sneezed at, but how much of that could you really keep?

The answer depends somewhat on individual circumstances -- for example, how much would you save by not parking downtown? -- but doing the subway math suggests that many commuters wouldn't save much, at least in the short run.

For example, a rush-hour trip on Metro's Orange Line from Vienna to Metro Center costs $3.55, or $7.10 round-trip. For 220 workdays a year, that's $1,562 -- all but wiping out the savings from not driving.

Similarly, the tab for a rush-hour trip from White Flint to Metro Center is $3.15. (Metro calls that the "regular" fare; the lower, off-hour fares are called "reduced.") Making that round trip 220 times works out to $1,386, another big bite out of your savings from not driving.

Also, remember that while you may be cutting out your downtown parking fee, Metro's lots aren't free. The tab at Vienna is $3.75 a day and at White Flint it's $4 (though you can pay up to $7.75 there, if you're not careful). Plus, if you want a reserved space at certain lots, it's an additional $45 a month.

Metro, incidentally, has all this information on its Web site, at http://www.wmata.com . Click on Schedules & Fares, then on Metrorail Fares, then on Metrorail Station page. You can pick any pair of stations and look up the fares, parking fees, travel time and distance.

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