Fare plan puts most of burden on Metro users

During public hearings, relatively few riders demanded more from Metro or questioned how it is run.
During public hearings, relatively few riders demanded more from Metro or questioned how it is run. (Linda Davidson/the Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

Metro is moving ahead with plans to impose the largest fare increase in its history this summer, as the financially strapped transit agency prepares to make its riders shoulder the majority of the $189 million operating budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

On Thursday, the Board of Directors discussed broad outlines of the fare increase -- estimated in the latest budget to bring in more than $102 million for the year -- to allow Metro's staff to start work on programming and marketing the changes.

The main components of the increase -- expected to be finalized at a special meeting of the board in mid-May -- include a 15 percent increase in rail fares and a 20 percent increase in bus boarding charges, producing $64 million and $24 million in revenue, respectively. In addition, fares for Metro's paratransit service for disabled and elderly riders will grow to twice the comparable bus fare, raising an additional $1.1 million.

"The staff now has a very good idea of the basic structure of the fare increase," said Peter Benjamin, chairman of the board. The bulk of the fare increases will take place by late June, according to Metro's chief financial officer, Carol Kissel.

Apart from the large operating budget deficit, Metro also faces a looming crisis in its capital funding. Maryland is unilaterally reducing its capital funding for Metro by $30 million this year, to about $42 million, and plans to do the same in fiscal 2011, according to a well-informed Metro official. That move, in turn, could trigger an unprecedented change in the capital funding formula for Metro, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the record.

Maryland, Virginia and the District are negotiating the terms of a new $4.5 billion, six-year capital funding plan for Metro. But if Maryland cuts its contribution, and the other jurisdictions, which oppose the cuts, do the same to maintain equity in the current funding formula, the lost capital funds could total about half a billion dollars.

"It's a slippery slope," the official said. The reduction in capital funds would exacerbate a projected $11 billion gap for Metro's capital needs over the coming decade, affecting the ability of the transit agency to replace buses and rail cars and repair tracks, the official said.

Metro will ask the board to endorse a new six-year capital program May 13, the official said.

In Thursday's discussion of the operating budget for the year that begins in July, board members objected to some fare increases and service cuts set out in a revised budget unveiled last week by Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles.

A proposed 50-cent increase in parking fees drew criticism from some board members as imposing too heavy a burden on rail riders, in addition to the increase in rail trip prices. "This disproportionately hurts folks who are making long-haul trips on the system," said board member Jeff McKay of Fairfax.

Other members called for eliminating the proposal for a $4 flat fee for late-night weekend rail service. "You're reaching the point where people will take taxicabs," said board member Jim Graham of the District.

Instead, Graham called for increasing from 10 cents to 20 cents the new "peak of the peak" rail fare to be levied during the rush-hour periods of 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m. That additional 10-cent increase would raise an additional $5 million in revenue.

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