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Some Metro Riders May Reach for Car Keys
Fare Hikes a Last Resort, Board Says

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

Scores of Metro riders, reacting angrily to proposed fare increases, say the hikes are so dramatic that taking the subway may no longer make sense, raising the possibility that large numbers will ditch mass transit altogether.

"It's ridiculous," Mike Green, 42, who takes the Red Line during rush hour between Shady Grove and Farragut North, said in an interview. "Surcharging people to ride during rush hour is like saying goodbye to the commuter," he wrote in an earlier e-mail. "I will drive."

Michael Hartt, a daily Orange Line rider who described himself as "beyond furious," said the idea of charging higher fares during rush hour doesn't make any sense -- for him or for efforts to ease the area's traffic congestion.

"Rather than encourage me to ride at off-peak hours, which just isn't feasible, a significant fare increase might be enough to force me into my car on a daily basis," Hartt wrote in an angry e-mail. "That seems entirely against the region's broader transportation goals."

Metro board members said yesterday that they will consider cutting vacant positions, eliminating non-union employee raises and paring other administrative costs before raising fares to help close a $116 million budget shortfall.

"I will be unable to support any fare increase, or any change in fare policy that results in a fare increase, until I am satisfied that we have as a board done all we could to insure that every possible step was taken" to address the budget shortfall, said Jim Graham, who represents the District on Metro's board.

As part of the budget recommendations, fares would increase at all times for all of the subway's nearly 700,000 daily riders, with bigger increases during rush hour. There would be a 35-cent rush-hour surcharge for those who travel through 19 heavily used downtown stations. Rush hour runs from 5 until 9:30 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. The surcharge would also be in effect from 2 to 3 a.m. Saturdays.

For the first time, Metro officials have also recommended charging riders more for using old-style paper farecards instead of electronic SmarTrip cards, which save the agency money.

The plan was presented at a meeting of the board's budget committee yesterday, kicking off a six-month discussion about how to offset the shortfall in the agency's fiscal 2008 spending plan. More details about possible fare increases will be presented to board members next month. No decision will be made until the spring.

Rush-hour subway riders who use paper farecards would pay between 65 cents and $1.75 more, depending on the length of the trip. Those who use SmarTrip would pay increases of between 15 and 45 cents, not including the 35-cent surcharge, or "congestion fee."

As a result, rush-hour rail riders could face a $2.10 fare increase if they paid with paper farecards.

Bus fares would remain unchanged -- at $1.25 -- for riders who pay with SmarTrip or weekly passes. But they would go up 75 cents for those who pay cash. Metro is also proposing to eliminate about a dozen bus routes with low ridership, most of them in Virginia.

Many riders said the proposals unfairly target suburban commuters who work for federal agencies and have no control over when they start their workdays.

"Stick 'em up," said John Parker, 61, raising his arms in a mock holdup as he got off a Red Line train at Metro Center about 8:15 a.m. yesterday. "We're the easiest targets," said Parker, a Rockville resident who commutes between Twinbrook and Foggy Bottom, where he works at the State Department. Parker has to travel during rush hour, and he doesn't want to drive because there is no parking.

Omar Bynum, 35, lives in Fort Washington and rides the Green Line from Southern Avenue on his to way to Metro Center. As a contractor for the Justice Department, he also has to travel during rush hour. His daily parking fee and round-trip commute is easily $10 to $12 a day, he said. Still, he said, he would probably stay on Metro because it is cheaper than driving.

Younger workers said the 35-cent surcharge seemed particularly unfair.

The 35-cent charge "for using a downtown station seems like a penalty for those of us who work anywhere within D.C.," Sarah Sullivan, 26, wrote in an e-mail. Sullivan works in the marketing department of a downtown law firm and takes the subway from Rockville to Metro Center. "It feels like I'm being punished not only for living far away where rents are more affordable, but also for working downtown."

Graham said his review of the budget proposal "suggests very strongly that we can take steps to avoid any fare increase."

Specifically, Graham suggested that the agency cut an additional 5 percent from all administrative budgets and eliminate 240 vacant positions, rather than the 34 proposed by staff.

He also suggested hiring fewer consultants, eliminating about 60 take-home cars and dropping the planned 5 percent pay raises for about 1,600 nonunion employees. Agency officials had proposed the raises as a way to keep middle managers from leaving for jobs in other jurisdictions where raises have averaged about 5 percent.

Several board members said they agreed with Graham's assessment that fare increases are not inevitable.

"Before anyone comes to that conclusion, we have to have an exhaustive look" at all options, said Chris Zimmerman, who represents Virginia on the board. "Fare hikes should be the next-to-last thing we should do," he said. "The last thing we should do is a reduction in service."

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