Bus riders see inequities in proposed Metro fare increases

Crystal Washington talks with her son on the last of the three buses she takes from work in the District to home in Temple Hills.
Crystal Washington talks with her son on the last of the three buses she takes from work in the District to home in Temple Hills. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010

Metro's proposal to raise fares would disproportionately affect commuters who depend on bus transportation and are least able to pay, according to outraged bus riders whose complaints are backed by Metro data.

Rail passengers, who face a 15 percent increase in fares, have a median income of $102,000; 75 percent are white, 18 percent are unemployed, and one in 50 lives in a household without a car.

Bus riders face a 20 percent rise in fares. They have a median annual income of $69,000; 50 percent are minorities, 23 percent are unemployed, and one in five has no car in the household, according to a Metrobus rider profile from 2007, the latest such data available.

Metro officials, facing a historic $189 million operating shortfall come the fiscal year that starts July 1, say raising fares and reducing service are a last resort. But officials said they are hard pressed to avoid those steps because of revenue shortfalls in the jurisdictions that fund Metro operations. To fill the gap, Metro is proposing $94 million in fare increases and almost $34 million in service cuts for bus and rail to help close the gap.

To close this year's gap of $40 million, Metro last month imposed a 10-cent surcharge on bus and rail fares, and some riders say they are stretched thin.

Crystal Washington, a mother of six, is a bus rider who doesn't own a car. She relies on buses for her 90-minute commute between Temple Hills and L'Enfant Plaza, and her children rely on the bus to go to church, school, the mall and the library.

"It's ridiculous," Washington said as her bus headed southeast over the Anacostia River. "A fare increase would impact me greatly."

Bus vs. rail

The fare increases proposed in Metro's 2011 budget are proportionally greater for bus than for rail. The proposal calls for raising the peak period bus boarding charge by 20 percent, from $1.25 to $1.50, and raising the peak period rail boarding charge by 15 percent, from $1.65 to $1.90.

The bus-riding population stands to suffer more than rail users because it tends to rely more heavily on public transit, Metro board member Jim Graham (D.C.) said in an interview Friday. "What it boils down to is, how hard will we hit those most transit-dependent and least able to pay? They have fewer options and less money," said Graham, who has pressed Metro staff members to provide more details on the impact of possible fare increases and service cuts.

For the first time, Metro is using Census Bureau and other data to identify the impact of fare and service changes on minorities and households without automobiles, under a mandate from the Federal Transit Administration, said Jim Hamre, Metro's acting director of bus planning. That evaluation is not completed, he said.

Metro's last major fare increase -- the largest in its history -- took effect in January 2008, raising rush-hour subway fares by 30 to 75 cents, depending on the length of the trip, and increasing parking fees by 75 cents. Bus fares increased a dime, but only for passengers who pay cash; it remained $1.25 for customers who pay with SmarTrip cards.

Metro Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington County played down the importance of the relative increase in bus vs. rail fares, calling it "a distraction." "To minimize the impact on the lower-income, we need to not cut service and get the jurisdictions to mitigate the impact of the fare increases," he said.

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