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Budget decision time nears for Metro

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010; C02

Riders are now waiting to learn how the transit authority board will deal with their recommendations on the Metro budget. Thousands of them have weighed in on a complex set of fare increases and service cuts that could be combined in various ways to help close the $189 million budget gap. Here's a look at what they had to say:

The basics

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.

Most riders now pay a dime more than that, because Metro imposed a fare surcharge this year to close a gap in the current budget, even before considering what to do about the shortfall expected in the new budget that starts in July.

Given the size of the gap, the Metro board gave itself a lot of maneuvering room. Its call for public comment included more than 80 budget-balancing options, including fare increases of more than 20 percent.

Riders react

Comments were taken at six public hearings and in writing. The transit authority also expanded its public outreach by conducting an online survey. A total of 5,475 submissions were received -- 1,842 of them at the hearings or in writing and 3,633 through the survey.

That's still a very small portion of the ridership. Metro riders take more than 1.2 million trips a day.

By the transit staff's reckoning, 79 percent of those who spoke at the hearings or submitted written testimony opposed service cuts. See the chart for highlights of the online survey.

The public discussion

Despite the lengthy list of possibilities for balancing the budget and the opportunity to speak freely about maintaining the centerpiece of the region's transit system, riders generally stuck to defending their current interests.

Bus riders described their dependence on particular routes to get to jobs, medical appointments and church. MetroAccess customers noted that they had made decisions about where to live based on the availability of the service.

Many bus riders and MetroAccess customers said they recognized that the transit authority faced a huge budget problem and that they were willing to pay higher fares. But they thought the higher end of the proposed increases was too steep.

Metrorail riders were more likely to speak against widening the gap between trains than against increasing fares. Many said they hoped that local governments would contribute more to Metro to blunt the impact of fare increases and service cuts.

But as Metro's leaders consider their options this coming week, they can't count on additional help from the local jurisdictions.

Given the transit authority's safety and service problems of the past year, relatively few riders used the hearings to demand more from Metro or question how the system is run.

Public officials were offered the opportunity to speak first and to speak longer than individuals, but only a handful of elected leaders took advantage of this spotlight.

A Washington Post poll on regional transportation issues that was conducted during the public-hearing period suggests why there was not more outrage: People still like Metro.

Two-thirds of rail users rated safety as excellent or good. Among those surveyed who use Metro, 80 percent rated it favorably.

However, the frequent riders' view of Metro's reliability was way down from a poll in 2005. Then, 78 percent had a favorable view of reliability, compared with 60 percent now.

What's ahead

The dominant themes in public comment -- fare increases are better than service cuts -- are what Metro board members are used to hearing when they resolve budget problems.

It's likely that they will rely on fare increases, a minimum of service cuts and some transfers of money from their capital budget to solve the expected shortfall.

It would be very unusual for the board to adopt a new fare policy or service change that hasn't been reviewed for months -- even years -- and recommended by the transit authority staff.

Keep that in mind as the board discusses relatively new ideas, such as the peak-of-the-peak fare, a proposal to add an extra charge during the very busiest part of the rush period.

However, it's interesting to note that in the online survey, 48 percent of respondents said they could support an additional charge of 20 cents at the peak of the peak, while smaller percentages supported several other pricing options in this category.

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