Rush-Hour Metro Fares May Rise as Much as $2.10

The Metro Center rail station is one of 19 in the District where riders could be levied an additional 35 cent
The Metro Center rail station is one of 19 in the District where riders could be levied an additional 35 cent "congestion charge" during rush-hour travel. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Rush-hour Metrorail riders face a $2.10 fare increase, and some off-peak passengers could get discounts under a proposal designed to raise money, change rider habits and ease crowding.

The possible changes are part of a far-reaching plan that Metro budget officials present to the agency's board today that could drastically alter how much riders pay and how they pay it. The plan is aimed at closing a $116 million budget shortfall, but it also attempts to improve service by encouraging the use of electronic SmarTrip cards and changing the times that people use the subway.

Tens of thousands more riders have used Metro in recent years, straining the system's capacity and causing overflow crowds on buses, trains and station platforms nearly every day. Agency officials hope that the fare proposals will encourage more people to ride less-crowded, off-peak trains, said Jack Requa, Metro's acting general manager.

As part of the proposal, Metro staff members will recommend increasing daily parking fees at its lots by 75 cents and bus fares, for those paying cash, by 75 cents. Bus fares would remain unchanged for riders who use SmarTrip and weekly passes.

Rush-hour subway riders who use paper farecards would pay 65 cents to $1.75 more, depending on the length of the trip. Riders who use SmarTrip cards would pay increases of 15 to 45 cents.

Additionally, all rush-hour rail riders who pass through one of 19 downtown stations where crowding is most severe would pay a 35-cent surcharge.

Under the proposal, the current maximum rush-hour fare of $3.90 would increase to $4.75 for SmarTrip users and $6 for paper farecard users.

Subway fares are based on the time of day and length of the trip. Rush-hour fees are charged on weekdays from when the system opens at 5 a.m. until 9:30 a.m.; from 3 to 7 p.m.; and, on Fridays, from 2 to 3 a.m.

For example, a Red Line trip from the Grosvenor-Strathmore station to Farragut North costs $2.75 during rush-hour periods. Under the proposal, the trip would cost $3.40 with a SmarTrip card and $4.35 with a paper card. The higher fares include the 35-cent "congestion charge," because Farragut North is one of the system's most crowded stations.

But to try to persuade more riders to take the subway when the system is less busy, such as between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., an off-peak trip from Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood to Metro Center would dip from $1.35 to $1.25 regardless of the payment method.

Officials also want people to switch to SmarTrip cards because they are cheaper for Metro than the paper ones. SmarTrip cards look and function like debit cards. The minimum purchase for a SmarTrip card is $10, which includes a $5 fee for the card itself. They are available online, at Metro stations with parking lots and Metro sales offices.

Bus delays would also be reduced if drivers didn't have to wait for passengers to count out their nickels and dimes, Requa said.

Officials are taking what they describe as a "targeted approach" to minimize fare increases for those least able to afford them -- bus riders. There are no proposed increases for MetroAccess, which provides transportation for the elderly and disabled.

The recommended increases, the first in three years, are part of a complicated proposal that departs from past practices. In previous years, Metro has raised fares for all riders without regard to boarding times. In fiscal 2005, for instance, the minimum subway fare increased 15 cents to $1.35, and the local bus fare rose a nickel to $1.25.

On average, the fare proposals would result in an increase of about 30 cents for Metrorail customers and 5 cents for bus riders, Metro officials said. The revenue proposals are designed to help the transit agency meet the budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The deficit is the largest in Metro's history, officials said, and is partly the result of escalating costs and slower-than-expected ridership growth this year.

Metro operates the country's second-busiest rail system and provides more than 700,000 passenger trips on an average weekday. Instead of the 3 to 4 percent increase that was projected in ridership this year, growth in rail ridership "has gone flat," said Charles Woodruff, Metro's chief financial officer. The slowdown is occurring during off-peak hours, and officials are unsure why.

Riders have reacted angrily to any proposed fare increases, and some board members have said that they would not support any raises until the agency has made all possible internal cuts. John B. Catoe Jr., Metro's incoming general manager, said he wants an outside company to review staffing levels, which could result in more administrative cuts, Requa said.

Metro has 240 vacant positions; the proposed spending plan calls for eliminating 34 of them. At the same time, Metro is recommending 5 percent pay raises for about 1,600 non-union employees to keep pace with raises given in the past three years to other area public officials.

The proposed $1.2 billion operating plan is 9 percent higher than the current one. To offset increased expenses, Metro is proposing to cover more than half of the shortfall -- $64 million -- through higher fares, an additional third from taxpayers through subsidies paid by jurisdictions where Metro operates and the remainder through administrative cuts and reductions in bus and rail service.

Today's meeting will be the start of a six-month process that officials said will include more opportunities for input from the public than in the past.

Other fare proposals being considered are the elimination of about a dozen bus routes, almost all in Virginia; the abolition of the one-day Metrobus pass; making bus-to-bus transfers available only on SmarTrip; and doubling the number of reserved parking spots at Metro-operated lots.

Daily parking fees range from $2.50 to $4 for Metrorail users. Subway users can pay an additional $45 a month for a reserved spot. But at several parking facilities, there is a long waiting list for those spots, officials said.

Among the bus and rail service cuts under consideration are scaling back service on four holidays, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents' Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day.

The agency is also proposing opening the subway at 8 instead of 7 a.m. on weekends and closing some station entrances on weekends.

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