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Metro board close to agreement on fare increases

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Metro's board of directors is close to agreement on a significant hike in rail, bus and paratransit fares estimated to bring in more than $97 million in additional revenue for the budget year that starts in July, and it could finalize the decision Thursday, board members said Wednesday.

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The board might also reach an accord on the overall fiscal 2011 budget and on how to close a $189 million operating-budget gap, although differences remain over issues including service cuts, borrowing from the capital budget and the amount of contributions from local jurisdictions, the members said.

"It has been difficult negotiating beyond the fare piece. We continue to do so, and it is my hope we can reach an agreement at tomorrow's meeting," said Catherine Hudgins, board member from Virginia.

Two weeks ago, the board's finance committee voted to approve a fare increase proposal and send it to the full board for consideration Thursday. That proposal calls for increasing the peak rail boarding charge from $1.65 to $1.90 and raising the maximum peak period rail fare from $4.50 to $5. It calls for a new "peak-of-the-peak" surcharge of 20 cents from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m.

The proposal also would raise the bus boarding charge from $1.25 to $1.50 and increase the weekly bus pass price from $11 to $15.

The chairman of the board, Peter Benjamin of Maryland, said the finance committee's plan would be the point of departure for the debate, but that the board could then consider the entire budget.

Hudgins, who is from Fairfax County, said board members had been discussing the budget over the past three days and had "small variances" on fares, but she said that there were bigger divisions on whether to draw from the capital budget for operations. "We are concerned about borrowing for preventive maintenance," she said.

Last week, Hudgins and other board members and alternates from Virginia issued a position on the budget that only slightly adjusted the fare plan. But the group called for a much larger than planned increase in the jurisdictional subsidy -- $71 million, compared with the $26 million proposed by Metro. The group also called for eliminating all service reductions as well as the proposed $30 million in borrowing from the capital budget for preventive maintenance.

"I don't favor approving a fare increase without resolution on the rest of the budget," said Christopher Zimmerman, a board member from Virginia.

Jim Graham, a board member from the District, also said he opposes the board's approving fare increases separately from the rest of the budget. And Graham said he seeks to eliminate any service reductions, preferring instead a parking fee increase.

The board is almost certain to approve a contract to purchase new Metro rail cars to replace the older 1000 series cars, part of a long-term plan to upgrade Metro's equipment, they said.

"That is the most important thing of all," said Zimmerman, who is from Arlington County. "Replacing the 1000 series cars is a high priority."

The first of the new cars would be delivered in late 2013.

The board also will consider a new multiyear advertising contract that is worth $15 million, compared with the previous $40 million contract. Zimmerman said he had concerns about concluding such a contract under "unfavorable terms."

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