Dr. Gridlock

Lots of possible changes lurk in 243-page Metro packet

(2006 Photo By Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Robert Thomson
Thursday, April 1, 2010

For people attending the Metro budget hearings that are scheduled to wrap up tonight, the first decision is whether to pick up the packet listing all the proposals to raise fares or cut services. It's 243 pages, counting the many pages of bus-route maps that might be revised.

This is a problem for us mere mortals. It's not the weight of the thing; it's the brain cells required to absorb the impact of all the changes, should the Metro board accept them this month.

Some of the potential results, such as a possible bus fare increase of 35 cents, are quite obvious. In other cases, the issues aren't just a matter of more revenue for Metro and higher costs for riders. They also involve changes in policy.

One of these is the proposal to reduce the three-hour bus-to-bus or bus-to-rail transfer period to two hours. Transfers are available to people paying with SmarTrip cards. I think the three-hour window is a pretty sweet deal. For the bus-bus transfer, it means a rider can take a bus to shopping, a movie or a meal and then get a free ride back home. On the Get There blog, I said that was a little too sweet for an agency in a budget crisis and that I'd go for the reduction to two hours -- still a decent deal.

But none of these budget moves is without consequences. Here's part of a rider's letter pointing out the impact for some in the suburbs.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Cutting the "transfer window" using SmarTrip cards back to two hours is not fair to suburban bus users, who usually have longer distances to cover by bus and sometimes only hourly service on a given route. It would double the fare for many round trips, in addition to any base fare increase.

Example: I leave my home in Arlington County at 10 a.m. to run an errand in Falls Church. A bus shows up around 10:10, but when it reaches the intersection of Columbia Pike and Route 7 (or Carlin Springs Road), it just misses connecting with the 28A toward Falls Church. So I have a long wait at the transfer point, and eventually get a 28A or the new 28X -- elapsed time since getting on the 16 bus: over 45 minutes. And I haven't gotten anywhere yet. By the time I reach Falls Church, I have been traveling for a full hour or a little more.

Coming back, the same thing happens. I might have to wait 20 minutes or so for a connection at Route 7 and Carlin Springs Road, meaning I have spent almost two full hours just waiting for or riding buses. If I am to be allowed more than a 10- to 15-minute window to run my errand, I will miss the two-hour transfer window. So I get to pay double fare for a simple trip.

The three-hour transfer is too generous only if you have a five-minute errand right at the bus stop, or if you're dealing with a D.C. bus route that runs every 10 minutes!

Doubling the fare this way is not fair. The three-hour window, or even a 2 1/2 -hour window, would allow me to pay the increased one-trip fare and do my business without having to pay double. The two-hour window is absolutely unreasonable given the badly scheduled connections between bus routes and the normal length of time needed to run an errand.

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