Metro will raise fares, but board is split over which commuters get hit harder

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; B01

Metro will prepare to implement a $104 million fare increase package, although the board of directors remains divided on what the package should include.

The board's finance committee recommended Thursday that the full board approve the package as part of a plan to close a $189 million deficit in Metro's operating budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

"We are 90 percent there," said Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal, who said she would use the fare plan as a framework for implementing the increases. Kissal said she expects the full board will work out any differences and vote on the package May 27.

The plan includes a 15 percent increase in rail fares, a 20 percent increase in the bus boarding charge and a new "peak-of-the-peak" rail fare surcharge during the busiest 90-minute rush-hour periods.

Metro's staff had sought final guidance on the fare increase Thursday, and Kissal warned board members that delaying a decision could mean the fare increase would not be put in place by July 1. The delay would mean lost revenue over a busy holiday period, she said.

"The longer it takes for the board to come to a consensus," the greater the risk of lost revenue, she said. Metro needs several weeks to program and market the fare increases. Kissal said the staff would make changes as necessary based on later board decisions.

Several board members voiced objections to the fare package based on the effect that increases would have on residents in their jurisdictions.

Board member Jim Graham, who represents Ward 1 on the D.C. council, reiterated his concern about the increase in bus fares, which disproportionately affects District residents, and he suggested reinstating an increase in daily parking fees that was in the original budget plan but was recently removed.

In response, board member Jeff McKay, a Fairfax County supervisor, said an increased daily parking fee would unfairly affect riders from Virginia.

Other members disagreed with taking the unusual step of moving forward with a significant fare increase without considering the entire $1.4 billion operating budget. "I'm very uncomfortable," said Graham, the only committee member to vote against the fare package. "This is a flawed process."

Members Christopher Zimmerman, who also sits on the Arlington County Board, and Mortimer Downey, a federal appointee, agreed. "Nothing is decided until everything is decided," Downey said.

Board Chairman Peter Benjamin stressed that the plan would not be final until the full board votes on the issue.

As the board debates the plan for next year, Metro's financial problems show no signs of easing. The operating budget deficit for 2010 has increased from $40 million to $54 million, partly as a result of revenue losses and expenses related to the winter snowstorms, officials said. As a result, Metro predicts that it will begin fiscal 2012 with a $15 million to $20 million operating budget deficit.

Metro has identified $11 billion in needed capital improvements over the next decade.

On Thursday, the board began consideration of a six-year, $5 billion capital funding agreement aimed at upgrading the transit system, including procuring new rail cars. The plan will go to Maryland, Virginia and the District for approval before being finalized by June 30.

A presentation on Metro's rail fleet Thursday projected "unmanageable" congestion of the system when it reaches capacity in 2020. By 2025, both the Orange and Green lines will have more than 120 riders per car, according to Metro data.

Metro defines "congested" as up to 100 people per car, "highly congested" as 101 to 120 people, and "unmanageable" as more than 120 people. The transit agency would need 320 more rail cars to keep congestion at acceptable levels, but the current capital plan does not include funds to purchase those, Metro officials said.

On personnel issues, the board hired the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles to conduct a six-month search for a permanent general manager. The board approved spending as much as $150,000 for the search. The firm has "both a national and international presence" and will conduct a broad-based search that will extend beyond the transit industry, Benjamin said.

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