Metro's Fee Talks Pit City Against Suburbs

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

Metro managers clashed yesterday over how much riders should pay to park at suburban lots after reviewing four new proposals to raise parking fees by 50 cents and minimum rush-hour subway fares between 20 and 40 cents.

The plans, presented by General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. and designed to close a projected shortfall, are revised versions of a proposal board members rejected two weeks ago.

Under Catoe's revised proposal, subway increases would be lower if they went into effect in January but higher in July. The increases for Metrobus and parking are the same for all four plans. Bus rides would rise by a quarter, from the current $1.25 to $1.50, and parking fees, typically $3.50 to $4.00 at suburban lots, would rise by 50 cents.

But during a three-hour special session that highlighted the competing interests of the District and its suburban neighbors, board members traded accusations about which riders would be hurt most by the latest proposal: suburban subway riders who pay to park, or city residents who mostly take the bus and don't have to worry about parking.

Jim Graham, a D.C. Council member who represents Ward 1, said he was concerned about low-income residents who live in the District and rely on Metrobus. He said he would not support any proposal that increased bus fare. Instead, he said, the fees for parking should go up. He said it was "offensive" that the proposed increase for parking was only 50 cents when the market rate for parking is much higher.

That prompted criticism from suburban board members.

"There are poor people in all the jurisdictions who take buses to all the sectors," said Catherine M. Hudgins, a Fairfax County supervisor who represents Virginia. "There is a perception that the District is the only place that has poor people," she said.

Virtually all board members agree that some fare increase is needed. Under Metro's rules, the agency must hold public hearings before any increases can be approved, but the parochial differences among board members has prevented them from agreeing on when to begin the public-hearing process.

Board members have also been reluctant to do so because they are required to set specific fare amounts as part of the public hearings. Once they set them, the amount of the increase can only be reduced, not increased. Board members therefore typically try to set those amounts a little higher to give themselves wiggle room in case the economic scenario worsens.

Catoe has said that the longer it takes for the board to decide, the greater the increases would have to be.

Maryland board members sought to authorize the public hearing process yesterday. "If we truly care about the poor, we need to move as early as possible," said Peter Benjamin, who represents Montgomery County.

But Graham threatened to veto such a move and instead asked Metro staff workers to provide more information about the cost of other parking lots near Metro facilities to see whether the market would justify higher rates.

Agency officials are scheduled to provide that information in two weeks.

If that information shows that the market would allow parking fees to go up more than 50 cents, D.C. members believe subway or bus increases could be reduced.

The additional two weeks gives board members more time to confer with their respective jurisdictions to see what kind of compromises can be made so they can begin the public hearings.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company