Metro approves broad fare increase, peak-use surcharges

Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles talks with The Washington Post's Jo-Ann Armao about a plan to evaluate and improve service.
By Ann Scott Tyson and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 28, 2010

Metro's board of directors on Thursday unanimously approved the most expansive fare hike in the history of the transit agency: nearly $109 million worth of rail, bus and paratransit increases, including a new 20-cent "peak-of-the-peak" surcharge for some rush-hour riders.

Rail fares will increase about 18 percent overall, with the peak rail boarding fare going from $1.65 to $1.95. The bus boarding charge will go up 20 percent, from $1.25 to $1.50 for SmarTrip users and from $1.35 to $1.70 for cash customers.

The maximum peak fare on Metrorail will rise from $4.50 to $5.45 for cash customers riding during the busiest periods, the "peak of the peak": weekdays from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m. SmarTrip users will see their maximum fare increase to $5.20.

This is the first time a differential has been applied between cash and SmarTrip rail fares, said Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's board of directors. Bus customers who used cash were already paying a surcharge. Metro wants to encourage people to use the SmarTrip system, which officials have described as more efficient. The plastic card, which riders can add more funds to, costs $5.

Concerned that riders should not pay more for reduced service, the board eliminated all proposed service cuts. A revised budget submitted to the board by Interim General Manager Richard Sarles last month contained $8 million in such cuts.

"People would find intolerable the idea that there would be a fare increase and also less service provided," said board member Jim Graham, who is also on the D.C. Council.

Metro officials and board members said they thought that the fare increase is the largest in Metro's history.

Riders responded to news of the increases -- most of which will take effect by July 1 -- with a mix of frustration and resignation, reflecting a broad consensus at earlier public hearings that fare hikes were better than service cuts. Metro officials said that the new "peak-of-the-peak" charge cannot be implemented until August because of the complicated programming and testing involved.

On Thursday afternoon, several commuters at the Farragut North Station said they were perplexed over the need to pay more.

"Didn't they just raise fares? They need to explain themselves," said Justin Wilson, 27, a compliance officer for Travelex Currency Services on K Street NW. "Everyone is suffering right now," said Wilson, who lives near Union Station and commutes downtown by bus or train.

Rosalina Rivera, who sells coffee at Caribou Coffee on L Street NW, said she already pays $7 a day to ride the Red Line from the Forest Glen Station near her home in Silver Spring to downtown and back. "I won't be able to pay more," she said. "It's going to be very hard for me."

Board members acknowledged that the fare increase will be an unwelcome burden. "The big issue of the budget is how much we will ask from the customers -- it is a lot," said Catherine M. Hudgins, a Virginia representative on the board.

The fare increase will make up well over half of the $189 million shortfall in Metro's $1.4 billion 2011 operating budget. Metro officials attribute the gap largely to lower-than-expected ridership because of the recession and unemployment. Transit agencies across the country are wrestling with lower revenue and budget deficits.

The board's decision to raise fares was part of an agreement on key elements of a plan to fill the budget gap, including $25.3 million in additional contributions from Maryland, the District and Virginia, which help fund Metro's operations. Nearly $30 million will be borrowed from Metro's capital funds to pay for preventive maintenance.

Several board members said they were reluctant to borrow from capital funds, and the board approved an amendment instructing Metro officials to devise a plan to repay capital dollars that are used for operations, as well as to avoid similar borrowing in the fiscal 2012 budget.

"A lot of folks are not happy about the preventive maintenance" borrowing, said Chris Zimmerman, another board member from Virginia. But overall, he said, the budget represents "a pretty good compromise."

The board's guidance on the budget and fares will allow Metro's staff to begin notifying the public of the increases, revising signs and preparing fare machines for the changes, as well as to craft a final budget document that board members say they have agreed to approve on June 24.

Rail fare increases -- including peak and discounted off-peak fares -- will bring in an estimated $76.9 million in additional revenue, according to Metro data.

Bus fare increases will produce about $24.7 million in additional revenue. Changes include raising the cost of the weekly bus pass from $11 to $15 and nearly doubling the fare on shuttles that serve Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports from $3.10 to $6. The boarding charge on express buses will increase from $3 to $3.65 for SmarTrip users and to $3.85 for cash customers.

Fares for MetroAccess, the shared ride service for disabled and elderly people who cannot ride regular buses, will increase to twice the equivalent fixed-route fare, to a maximum of $7 per one-way trip. Additional surcharges of $2, $3, $4 or $5 will apply for longer MetroAccess trips through four outer zones, but the total fare will not exceed $7 for any trip, Benjamin said. The MetroAccess fare increases will bring in an estimated $1.2 million in additional revenue.

Metro's mounting budget deficits represent only one of several daunting challenges faced by a transit agency that has reeled over the past year from a string of fatal accidents, including June's Red Line crash, which killed nine people. Also plaguing Metro have been high-level staff vacancies and turnover, including the resignation of General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.

Michael Wasson, 30, who rides from Cleveland Park to a job near Union Station, said he'll be paying more for a transit system he feels he's been misled to believe is really being improved. Service often is delayed for track and maintenance work, "and the announcements always go out that the system is being upgraded," he said.

"My position would be, if we need to pay a little more, that's fine, but is this really paying for Metro to be upgraded? The cars are a sweatbox. They're crowded, especially when crowds come back from a game on weekend nights. Are higher fares going to improve anything? I don't see it."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company