10-cent fare hike proposed to help close D.C. Metro budget gap

The Metro board announced Thursday plans to hold a public hearing on various budget-cutting proposals, including a fare surcharge, eliminating eight-car train service at peak periods, and widening gaps between trains to reduce or eliminate cuts for this fiscal year.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

Metro's board of directors voted unexpectedly Thursday to offer the public more options for closing the system's $40 million budget gap, including an across-the-board fare increase of up to 10 cents that could offset the need for service cuts.

If approved, a 10-cent fare increase would start in April and bring in about $4 million in additional revenue by the end of this fiscal year in July -- the same amount that would be saved through the proposed service cuts, Metro officials said. But the figure does not include revenue that would be lost because of the higher fares.

The board called for public comment and hearings to be held within the next two weeks on the fare increase and several other options for addressing the budget shortfall, caused largely by rail and bus ridership that was lower than expected. The board will decide on the remedies Jan. 28.

Any fare increase would be the first since January 2008, when Metro raised rush-period base fares by 30 cents, to $1.65, and the maximum fare by 60 cents, to $4.50. Before that, fares were unchanged for four years.

Although the board called for any fare increase to last only until July, it is scheduled to begin discussion this month about possible additional fare increases and service cuts to make up an estimated $175 million deficit in the preliminary $1.4 billion operating budget for fiscal 2011.

Nationwide, it is unusual for a public transit service to lower fares once it has raised them, particularly when it faces systemic financial problems, as Metro does, said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

Heated debate broke out among board members about whether to allow consideration of a 20-cent fare increase -- a position favored by members from Virginia and Maryland -- and the 10-cent option backed by members from the District. Board Chairman Jim Graham of the District prevailed by vetoing the 20-cent proposal. Virginia and Maryland members said customers in their areas had voiced a preference for paying more rather than reducing service.

"I want to put 20 cents out there" to give riders a greater choice, said board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington County, adding that by limiting the possible increase to 10 cents, cuts in maintenance or service would be inevitable. "Thirty-minute headways are just nonsensical on a system we have spent so much money on," Zimmerman said, referring to a Metro proposal to lengthen the time between trains to 30 minutes after 9:30 p.m. on all routes except the Red Line.

"Many riders commented that they would much prefer a fare increase during late nights and weekends, preserving ridership choice, to a service reduction," Jack Corbett and Kevin Moore, directors of MetroRiders.Org, a rider advocacy group, wrote in a letter to the board. The service cuts would "turn Metro into much more of a commuter-only system rather than a subway people can rely on at all times," they wrote.

In addition to Metro's plan for filling the budget gap, the new options for public comment include:

-- Increasing the amount of capital funds that would be shifted to the operating budget by $4 million, for a total of $16 million, an alternative offered by Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.

-- Reducing the hours of Metrorail service rather than the frequency of trains.

-- Restructuring bus routes rather than eliminating stops or segments.

The board had been expected to authorize rail and bus service cutbacks that would increase crowding and wait times between trains and buses starting at the end of March, Metro officials said.

The planned decreases in rail and bus service also would have started at the end of March, Metro officials said.

Last month, Metro announced that its projected budget gap this fiscal year would be almost double the previous estimate as ridership continued to shrink because of the recession and rising unemployment. Metrorail ridership is 6 percent lower than projected for the budget year, and bus ridership is about 9 percent lower, leading to expected revenue decreases of $24 million and $10 million, respectively. Riders are also making shorter trips, further eroding revenue, officials said.

The Washington area transit problems are mirrored to a degree in other large cities as nationwide ridership on transit systems fell almost 4 percent for the first nine months of last year, according to the transportation association.

"Nearly 60 percent of riders take public transportation to commute to and from work, so it is to be expected that public transit ridership would be lower when unemployment is high," Millar wrote in an e-mail. He said the trend to reduce service would probably worsen the problem. "Raising fares and cutting service drives people away from using public transit and is counterproductive," he said.

Catoe has proposed closing the $40 million gap for this fiscal year by several means, including shifting $12 million in parts requirements to the capital budget and using stimulus funds rather than operating funds for $10 million worth of preventive maintenance.

If approved, the main rail service changes would have included lengthening the time between trains on weekends, late in the evening and at midday by three to 10 minutes, for savings of almost $2 million. In addition, the wait time would have increased by two minutes for trains between 6 and 6:30 a.m. weekdays, saving about $114,000.

Metro would also eliminate the use of eight-car trains during peak hours to save about $672,000 in maintenance and electricity.

Mezzanines at 10 stations would be closed on weekends and would close at 8 p.m. at five stations on weekdays -- meaning that customers would have to walk an additional block or two to an open entrance -- for a savings of more than $200,000.

Metrobus service would also be scaled back, saving more than $1 million, mainly by increasing the time between buses and eliminating bus stops or segments that have few riders. The changes would affect about 100,000 riders in the District, 36,000 in Virginia and 16,000 in Maryland, and would lead to a reduction of 15 buses during peak hours.

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