Metro prepares unprecedented fare increases

Riders board a rail car at the Metro Center Station. The transit system faces a $44 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that ends in July.
Riders board a rail car at the Metro Center Station. The transit system faces a $44 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that ends in July. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Metro riders are bracing for their most extensive fare increases ever -- more than $102 million worth for next year, including surcharges of as much as 50 cents for peak rail trips -- as the financially beleaguered transit agency attempts to dig itself out of a deepening deficit.

Metro's staff is requesting that its board of directors provide final guidance on the higher fares Thursday to allow time to put the bulk of the increases in place by the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"The staff is pushing to have us pick something, but I want to see that we do this right before we do the biggest fare increase in the system's history," said Chris Zimmerman, a board member from Arlington County.

Zimmerman said that he favors limiting the fare increases to no more than half of the budget deficit and that he would not approve a hike as large as the one proposed unless the board can assure riders that there will be no service cuts or reduction in capital spending.

The latest budget proposal by Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles, aimed at closing a $189 million budget gap for fiscal 2011, includes $8 million in service cuts and borrowing $30 million for preventive maintenance from the capital budget.

Board member Jim Graham of the District said the board is nearing consensus on the fares, with "just a few outstanding issues." But he said that if the board reopens discussion of other major issues, such as service cuts and using capital funds to pay for preventive maintenance, "there will be much longer discussions."

The main components of the fare increase include a 15 percent rise in most rail fares, producing $64 million in revenue, and a 20 percent increase in bus boarding charges, generating $24 million. In addition, fares for Metro's paratransit service for disabled and elderly riders will grow to twice the comparable bus fare, raising $1.1 million.

Metro is also weighing a new "peak of the peak" rail fare of 10 to 20 cents that will be levied during the rush-hour periods of 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m. A 20-cent increase would raise an additional $7.7 million.

The board is also considering a peak-of-the-peak surcharge of as much as 50 cents for rail riders who travel in the Washington area's "congested core" -- defined as the 21 most crowded stations, including Metro Center and Union Station. That could bring in $5 million to $10 million, depending on whether it is based on which stations riders exit from or which stations they pass through.

Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's board, said he has "no good idea how close we are" to approving the fare increases and the 2011 budget. Mortimer Downey, a federal member of the board, said he expected that the budget would not be approved until the next board meeting May 27.

Other major topics of discussion Thursday included Metro's new six-year capital improvement plan, which Metro is seeking board approval for. Last week, Sarles said Maryland agreed to support Metro's proposed $5 billion capital improvement program for 2011 to 2016 in return for the agency providing greater "transparency" on how it spends the funds.

Sarles is also expected to give a presentation to the board on a May 5 incident in which a Red Line train operator applied the emergency brake as the six-car train approached another train at Wheaton Station. Metro's safety oversight body, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, has asked Sarles to report back this week on the causes of the incident as well as communications problems at Metro that led to a failure to report the incident to the committee or the board for more than 24 hours.

Metro came under further scrutiny Wednesday when the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' board of directors voted to join with the Greater Washington Board of Trade to conduct an independent review of the governance structure of the transit agency.

A task force of former elected and appointed officials and private-sector leaders will take part in the review, aimed at developing recommendations by later this year, according to a statement by the Council of Governments.

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