Metro Passes Largest Fare Hikes in Its History

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

By an overwhelming majority, the Metro board approved the largest increases in subway fares and parking fees in the agency's history yesterday, with the biggest hikes affecting rush-hour riders who travel longer distances.

After months of contentious debate, the board compromised in a 5 to 1 vote that will raise the subway rush-hour boarding charge by 30 cents, to $1.65 per trip, and increase daily parking fees, which are as high as $4, by 75 cents for six months. The board has an option to raise parking fees an additional quarter after that. Virginia member T. Dana Kauffman cast the sole opposing vote.

The fare and fee hikes are scheduled to take effect Jan. 6 and would be the first such increases in four years, officials said. There are no increases for off-peak subway fares or MetroAccess. Bus fares would increase by a dime for cash-paying passengers but would remain $1.25 for riders who pay with electronic SmarTrip cards.

As a result, rush-hour riders, who make up the biggest portion of daily users, will experience the largest increases. A trip from the Vienna Metrorail station to Dupont Circle would increase from $3.65 to $4.35; a trip from Shady Grove to Tenleytown would go from $3.35 to $4.

The fare hikes are intended to raise $109 million to help close a projected shortfall in next year's budget and help cover rising energy costs, expanded service and growing maintenance needs. Local governments served by Metro will also be paying more to the agency to cover the budget gap. Officials estimate that the plan would raise $3 million to $4 million less than the targeted $109 million and that some, but not many, passengers would stop riding.

Since the fare discussions began, the public debate has pitted suburban board members, who want to keep parking fees and train fares low, against urban members, who want to keep bus fares low for low-income riders.

I. Michael Snyder, who chairs the Metro-appointed Riders' Advisory Council, said the board's actions did not represent the sentiment of the riding public, and he was therefore resigning as a member of the group.

"In good conscience, I can no longer work with such a non-visionary board," Snyder told board members yesterday. Snyder, who takes Metrorail from Rockville to Ballston, predicted that the fare and fee increases will cause riders to climb back into their cars.

More than 1.2 million passengers ride Metrorail and Metrobus daily. Although ridership has soared in recent years, the rate of growth has slowed, while expenses have ballooned.

The plan adopted yesterday was a compromise crafted by Maryland members to lessen the impact on long-distance riders after much public feedback. Members had little maneuvering room because they could only reduce fares outlined in an earlier proposal presented during public hearings. The District's insistence on keeping bus fares low resulted in larger increases from rail fares and parking fees.

That earlier proposal called for higher distance charges for rush-hour subway trips, a parking increase of $1.15 and an increase in reserved parking spaces.

But that plan was highly criticized. More than 400 customers testified or submitted written comments; more than two-thirds were riders from Maryland and Virginia. Many said the increases in subway fares and parking charges were too high and not justified by unreliable service.

In response, the board adopted a suggestion by Maryland board member Gordon Linton to consider refunds to customers when service does not meet certain criteria. Metro staff members have been directed to recommend a specific service guarantee policy.

Overall, board members said they tried to reflect riders' sentiments.

"The board has heard the comments from the riders, and this constrains the maximum fare for the long-distance rider, reduces the amount it goes up and keeps parking fees lower," said Maryland member Peter Benjamin, referring to the compromise adopted yesterday.

Virginia board member Christopher Zimmerman, who is also an Arlington County board member, said his constituents take short subway trips. But he voted for the compromise because it lessened the impact on long-distance riders, who would add to road congestion if they stopped taking Metro.

Still, the compromise puts too much burden on suburban riders who typically park at end-of-line stations and take longer trips, Kauffman said. Under the plan adopted yesterday, the maximum rush-hour fare per trip increases 60 cents to $4.50.

"The whole thing is predicated on an assumption that from Montgomery to Prince George's to Fairfax County, the long-distance riders are masochistic drones and will take the hit and keep on coming," Kauffman said.

A rush-hour trip from Rockville to Dupont Circle that now costs $3.50 will increase to about $4.20. Daily parking at Rockville will increase to $4.75. Total weekly increase to that park-and-rider: $10.75.

Looking to the future, the board also agreed to abide by a policy, starting in July 2010, for fare adjustments to occur every two years and to be linked to the biennial increase in the consumer price index for that period. Those actions would still be subject to public hearings.

Nearly three-fourths of the money from the plan adopted yesterday would come from the increase in rush-hour train fares, an additional 25 percent from increased parking charges, and 1 percent -- about $1 million -- from higher bus fares for riders who pay cash.

Reserved monthly parking would also increase by $10, to $55. That fee is in addition to the daily parking charge. After dozens of riders protested an earlier proposal to set aside more reserved parking spaces, the board voted yesterday against any such increase.

Although federal workers make up 34 percent of subway riders, Metro receives no federal dollars for its operating costs. Unlike other major transit agencies, it has no dedicated revenue source. Its operating cost is paid by fareboxes, revenue from advertising and parking and subsidies from local jurisdictions that Metro serves.

The big unknown is what riders will do. Kauffman, known for his pithy quips, said the plan was "institutionalizing a raw deal," referring to the inequality to long-distance riders. It was the last meeting for Kauffman, who has been on the board for 12 years.

The board and staff members gave him two standing ovations. Kauffman became emotional as he spoke of his pride in the Metro employees who kept working on Sept. 11, 2001. Even though then-D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey wanted Metro to shut down, "they stayed on the trains and stayed on the buses."

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