Metro Riders Open Wallets

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

The largest Metro fare and fee increases in the transit agency's history go into effect today, but many suburban commuters won't feel the full effect until tomorrow, the first weekday, when they park at Metrorail stations and ride trains during rush hour.

Subway riders who park and travel longer distances during rush hour will be hardest hit, paying as much as 75 cents more per trip, or up to $2.25 more a day when the 75-cent increase for daily parking is factored in.

That means someone who parks at the Rockville Metrorail lot and rides to Metro Center during rush hour would have a daily commuting cost of $13.65, up from $11.40.

Park-and-riders who travel longer distances during rush hour are looking at an additional $11.25 a week, or $585 a year, in commuting costs. Such trips include Vienna/Fairfax-GMU to L'Enfant Plaza on the Orange Line, Greenbelt to Pentagon City on the Green and Yellow lines, and Largo Town Center to Court House on the Blue and Orange lines.

For bus riders, fares went up a dime as of 7 a.m. today for those paying with cash. They are still $1.25 for those using the electronic SmarTrip fare cards.

The Metro board adopted the increases last month. They are the first in four years and are intended to raise $109 million to help close a projected $141 million shortfall in the $1.3 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Metro officials say the pace of ridership growth has not been enough to offset ballooning operating expenses, including rising energy costs, expanded service and maintenance of an aging system.

Metro officials cut positions and laid off 83 employees last year to reduce costs. Jurisdictions served by Metro will also be asked to pay more to the agency to cover the remainder of the budget gap.

On Friday, the region's Senate delegation said it will renew its call for dedicated federal funding for the transit agency, which carries more than 1.2 million bus and rail passengers daily. It is the only major transit system in the United States that lacks a dedicated revenue source. Metro's operating cost is paid by fareboxes, revenue from advertising and parking, and subsidies from the jurisdictions that Metro serves.

About 34 percent of Metrorail riders and nearly half of all rush-hour passengers are federal workers.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said Metro has eased the burden on the Washington region's overcrowded roads. "As Metro trains and buses become overwhelmed, the federal government must pay its fair share rather than allow fare increases that disproportionately hit suburban riders with higher rail and parking fees," he said in a statement Friday.

Bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would provide $1.5 billion over 10 years in dedicated funding for Metro provided that the District, Maryland and Virginia together guarantee to match that amount. The bill would help rehabilitate the system's aging trains, tracks and buses. All three jurisdictions have pledged to match the federal amount.

But the Senate bill has been blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), even though the bipartisan measure has overwhelming support in Congress, Cardin said.

"If not for Senator Coburn, this bill would have passed the Senate and would probably have been law. He is the holdup," Cardin said.

"The good news is that we have run all of the traps with everyone possible at this point. We've got everyone lined up, and, when we find the right opportunity, I am optimistic that we will be successful getting this authorization done before this year is out."

A spokesman for Coburn, a fiscal conservative who is blocking dozens of money bills, said the senator is opposed to funding a program without cutting funding from something else.

In the meantime, the fare increase is taking effect. It cost Metro about $363,000 for new signs, brochures, fliers, maps and decals that list the new fares and fees, officials said.

The rush-hour boarding charge is increasing 30 cents, to $1.65 per trip, and the maximum fare is $4.50 per trip. The fare for seniors and people with disabilities will also increase to one-half the rush-hour fare, regardless of time of day. There are no increases for off-peak rail travel or for MetroAccess, the paratransit service for people with disabilities.

The cost of many rail and bus passes will also increase. Some companies that buy rail passes for their employees, such as the weekly Fast Pass, were unable to buy them last week because they will not be sold at some Metro sales centers until tomorrow, Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said.

But three Metrobus garages have Sunday hours and will be selling the passes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., officials said. They are the Northern garage, at 4615 14th St. NW; the Western garage at 5230 Wisconsin Ave. NW; and Southeastern garage, at 17 M St. SE. The passes can also be bought from vending machines at Metrorail stations.

Daily parking fees will rise 75 cents to a maximum of $4.75. The Metro board has the option to increase parking fees by an additional quarter in July. Metered fees will increase from 25 cents to $1 per hour, and monthly reserved parking will increase $10, to $55, next month.

To increase accessibility of SmarTrip cards, Metro has given 50,000 cards to social service agencies in Virginia, Maryland and the District. The agencies will distribute them free to low-income bus riders who will not have to pay the $5 cost of the rechargeable fare cards. Passengers will need to add value to the cards with their own money.

Metro is also selling the cards at eight stations near popular bus-transfer points from 4 to 7 p.m. through Jan. 10. Those stations are Anacostia, Minnesota Avenue, Columbia Heights, Potomac Avenue, Union Station, Silver Spring, Ballston-MU and Brookland-CUA.

Bus tokens, the one-day bus pass and a multiday rail pass, sold to people attending conventions, have been eliminated.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company