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Metro plan for third tier in peak fares may be battleground

The Metro finance panel proposed adding a third tier to the fare system, a surcharge for traveling in the very busiest part of the rush periods.
The Metro finance panel proposed adding a third tier to the fare system, a surcharge for traveling in the very busiest part of the rush periods. (Linda Davidson/Washington Post)
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By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

When the Metro board's finance committee passes a resolution, it's usually a pretty good sign that the full board will adopt it and riders will have to live with the consequences. That's only partly true of the action the committee took Thursday on fares.

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Certainly, riders can expect to pay substantially more for rail, bus and paratransit this summer. But some of the fare and fee increases in the resolution shape a battleground for board members trying to defend the interests of riders from their jurisdictions. Here's a guide.

Peak of peak

This is the most unusual element of the fare plan. Metrorail has a two-tiered fare system. Riders pay an off-peak fare that Metro refers to as the discount fare and a peak fare that Metro refers to as the regular fare. The peak of the peak would be a third tier, a surcharge paid by Metrorail riders who travel in the very busiest part of the rush periods. Metro has two goals with this fare: Make money and spread out the burden of congestion.

Money: Because Metro has never tried such a system, it's difficult to gauge the impact. But transit managers think it will indeed make money, probably $7.7 million for fiscal 2011 if it's set at 20 cents. (It could be set as high as 50 cents, but that's unlikely.)

Congestion: They also think some riders who now travel on the margins of the peak of peak will start their trips earlier or later, decreasing crowding on the trains. The proposed peak of peak hours are 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m. About a third of Metrorail trips occur during those times. The higher the surcharge, the more riders who would shift to the regular peak to save money. Metro estimates that 10 percent of peak of peak riders would shift if the surcharge is 20 cents. Most riders in the middle of the peak, including most 9-to-5 workers, would be stuck, unless their bosses will let them change hours or telecommute. If not, they become Metro's cash cows.

Variables: Metro could go for a system-wide surcharge. Or it could confine the extra fee to the most congested part of the system, which is in downtown Washington and Northern Virginia. The fee could be applied to riders who enter and exit in the congestion zone. Or it could be applied to riders who use the stations in the zone and to those who just pass through it. Either way, the theory goes, these people are riding on the most crowded trains. Another option, suggested for discussion by board member Chris Zimmerman, is to limit the peak of peak time to an hour, instead of an hour and a half, and increase the amount of the surcharge. That would still raise a lot of money while reducing the ridership affected.

Issues: A surcharge on everyone is the easiest version for riders to understand. But it also captures many reverse commuters traveling on relatively uncrowded trains. A congestion zone surcharge is more targeted but strains the brain of riders trying to anticipate their fares, especially if they are just passing through the zone. And what are the implications for rail service if many people change their riding habits? The impact on evening rush trips, when riders are more flexible, is trickier to anticipate than the morning impact. Could Metrorail adjust to more people traveling between 6 and 7 p.m.? And does a congestion surcharge penalize people who choose to live close to work in the region's core?

Other fares

The board almost certainly will raise Metrorail fares 15 percent. The basic boarding fare at peak periods would go to $1.90. The basic boarding fare at off-peak hours would go to $1.55. The maximum fare would be $5, not including the peak of peak surcharge.

The basic Metrobus fare could go up 20 percent, to $1.50. That's more than some board members, including Jim Graham of the District, would like. So look for more fighting over this.

MetroAccess fares would stay at twice the comparable base bus fare, but if the bus fare increases, that means a proportional increase in the paratransit fare.

Fees

There's no increase in daily parking fees in this proposal, and Jeffrey C. McKay of Fairfax County said he won't vote for a budget that revives the idea of a 50-cent increase. The fee for monthly reserved parking would increase $5, to $60. People who rent Metro's 1,200 bike lockers face a 186 percent increase in the yearly rental fee, to $200.

Night-owl service

The proposal maintains 3 a.m. Metrorail service on weekends but raises the fare from the off-peak rate to the peak rate. A less likely option is to impose a $4 flat fare for the service after midnight. Graham will fight for the most service at the lowest price.


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