Higher Fares Are Proposed To Offset Budget Shortfall

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Virginia Railway Express should raise fares, reduce station security and slash rider discounts to cover a nearly $8 million budget deficit created by plunging ridership, Fairfax County officials said yesterday.

Their recommendations to the board of the Northern Virginia commuter line also would eliminate a longtime program promoting free ride certificates to passengers if a train arrives late and would increase the surcharge for boarding Amtrak trains. Rail cars would be washed less frequently, and ticket prices would climb by 2 percent, the fifth fare increase in as many years. Marketing expenses would be reduced, and a program started two years ago to ensure that conductors collect tickets on trains would be scrapped.

Fairfax and Prince William counties, Manassas and the other localities that help subsidize operating costs are scheduled this week to sign off on similar recommendations to cover the projected budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, one of the system's largest. Ridership and on-time performance have improved in recent months, but the system hit a low point in performance last summer as track construction and heat-related delays siphoned riders.

"You cut into people using the system, and that creates a vacuum in revenue," VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said yesterday. He declined to comment on the recommended cuts before the operations board takes them up next month.

Fairfax supervisors who serve on one of the two commissions that govern VRE said yesterday that they have reservations about the cuts, which were suggested by county staff. They said they worry that scrimping on marketing and other services could hamper their efforts to win back customers and draw fresh riders.

"It's one of those double-edged swords," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). "You need to spend money to attract riders. An issue as simple as a dirty rail car can make a difference. It's basic customer service." The railroad has cut service at midday and on some holidays.

Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) said reducing the marketing budget might worsen the slippage in riders. County transportation officials said the suggested cuts would make the best of a bad situation.

The loss in riders came after four years of growth for VRE. But the railroad recorded 120,000 fewer trips from July 2005 through June compared with the previous year. One of every two trains was delayed last summer.

Roeber blamed the poor performance on new summer heat restrictions that led to bottlenecks, particularly on the Fredericksburg line. Construction of rail ties on the line, which is owned by freight company CSX Corp. and leased to VRE, also created delays. Service was held up this year by a derailment in January and heavy rains in June that led to full-scale cancellations. Each mishap sends commuters back to their cars. So VRE needs to work that much harder to bring them back, officials said.

Bulova said the construction is almost finished, and heat is no longer a factor. The railroad averaged 14,350 daily riders last month, up from 13,600 in July, Roeber said. But ridership is still short of its peak of 14,700 in recent years.

The lost ticket sales are projected to cost VRE $3.4 million in revenue for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Higher fuel costs, insurance premiums and debt on new rail cars account for the rest of the shortfall.

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