Charity on wheels

Sunday, May 23, 2010

NOT MANY THINGS in life are impervious to price increases, but riding a Metrobus is close. In the past two decades, the price of a bus ride has risen by an average of just a penny a year, less than half the rate of inflation. At the same time, the cost of that ride borne by Metro has roughly tripled. The result is that Metro's subsidy for bus passengers is now on the order of $350 million annually. That's more than twice its subsidy for rail passengers, who comprise almost two-thirds of the system's total daily riders.

On its face, this is unfair to rail passengers, whose fares have soared in recent years as bus fares have barely inched up. Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), the D.C. Council member who has championed bus riders on the Metro board since 1999, argues that (mainly urban) bus passengers on average are poorer and more transit-dependent than (mainly suburban) rail passengers, so subsidizing them at a higher rate is fair. Wielding the threat of vetoing Metro budgets, Mr. Graham has beaten back repeated attempts to increase bus fares.

The problem is that artificially low bus fares are contributing to Metro's status as a pauper transit system now trying to close a $189 million deficit in next year's budget of $1.4 billion. Fares paid by bus passengers cover barely 30 percent of the real cost of the ride, lower than the historical norm; by contrast, rail fares cover about 80 percent of the real cost, higher than the historical norm. Bus fares also lag behind those of most other major transit systems around the country. Bus passengers in the District who have SmarTrip cards pay $1.25 for a bus ride, while Chicagoans, San Franciscans, New Yorkers and Seattleites pay $2 or more in their cities.

This is no way to run a railway or a bus system, as even Mr. Graham acknowledges implicitly. He has consented to a 25-cent increase in bus fares in the fiscal year starting in July. That's a step in the right direction -- although it's not enough to bring Metrobus in line with other major transit networks.

The deeper problem remains Metro's balkanized governance, and specifically a board of directors that pits suburban representatives from Virginia against state representatives from Maryland against city representatives from the District -- and allows each a veto. Of course, Metro cannot climb out of its budgetary hole exclusively on the backs of bus riders. But it is also unlikely to solve its long-term money and safety problems without overhauling an antiquated governing structure that was better suited to building a transit system than running one.

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