Metro to weigh 5-cent levy at 6 subway stations to fund improvements at them

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

As Metro riders brace for a historic fare increase, the finance committee of Metro's board of directors approved the option Thursday of imposing yet another five-cent surcharge on entry and exit at two rail stations each in Virginia, Maryland and the District to fund capital improvements to the Metro system at those stations.

The full board has yet to agree on the concept or to decide where and when to implement the surcharge. But the catalyst for the idea was a $36 million plan to ease commuter congestion at Union Station, one of Metro's busiest hubs, according to Metro and District officials.

No other stations have been proposed for the surcharge, said Catherine M. Hudgins, who represents Virginia and is chairwoman of the finance committee.

The District is applying for about $18 million in federal grant money to pay for part of the improvements, and the rider surcharge would be used to repay money borrowed to provide local matching funds, said Steve Strauss, special adviser to Metro from the D.C. Transportation Department. The work would take about three years, he said.

"We came up with the surcharge idea," Strauss said.

The five-cent surcharge for rail station upgrades was among the list of options presented at recent public hearings on closing the $189 million gap in Metro's $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. However, it was not part of a sweeping $109 million fare increase package approved in its broad outlines by Metro's board last month, apparently because it was overlooked and because the surcharge would fund capital improvements rather than operations, Hudgins said. The board is scheduled to vote on the final fare increase plan June 24.

The proposed Union Station work would include moving the First Street entrance to Union Station north and enlarging it, building two elevators and an escalator, and adding fare gates.

"I use Union Station every day and there are just bottlenecks," said alternate board member Anthony R. Giancola of the District.

Metro's top finance officer, Carol Kissal, said that there are about 33,000 daily boardings at Union Station, so the surcharge would raise about $400,000 a year.

Board Chairman Peter Benjamin of Maryland abstained from the committee motion, and Jim Graham of the District voted against it. "We are approving a fare increase, details to be provided later," Graham said, voicing his objection.

Metro officials also outlined more fine-tuning of the fare increase plan, saying that some rail passes would increase twice -- first on June 27 and again Aug. 1, when peak travel prices will take effect. For example, the seven-day fast pass for rail will increase from $39 to $45 on June 27 and to $47 on Aug. 1 to prevent customers from using the pass to avoid new peak-of-the-peak fares to be imposed during the busiest 90 minutes of the morning and afternoon commutes.

In addition, Metro officials said the weekly flash passes for seniors and the disabled would increase from $6 to $7.50, and the boarding charge for those groups on express buses and the airport shuttle would go up from 60 cents to $1.80.

Board members and Metro officials acknowledged that the complex fare increases will probably perplex riders. "It seems that . . . we will have the maximum confusing situation," said Chris Zimmerman, a board member from Virginia.

The fare increases are a response to Metro's worsening financial situation. On Thursday, Metro officials disclosed that the transit agency's $40 million operating budget shortfall for this fiscal year will increase by $25 million because of lost revenue and other costs of the winter snowstorms, as well as higher-than-expected paratransit costs.

Kissal said $21 million of that increase results from the storms and the remainder was caused by budget overruns for MetroAccess, Metro's paratransit service for the disabled and elderly.

Kissal had estimated that the budget gap would be $15 million to $20 million higher, but that changed because of lower-than-expected reimbursement to Metro from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the storms. "Reimbursement from FEMA will only be $3 million," Kissal said.

Metro instituted a fare increase and other measures to cover the $40 million gap for this year, and the additional $25 million shortfall will be carried forward to fiscal 2012, according to Metro rules.

Also Thursday, the Metro board's customer service committee endorsed a plan to expand the use of credit cards to 22 Metrorail parking facilities. Metro announced in a news release that if the plan is approved by the full board June 24, Metro will install credit card machines in parking lots at the following Metro stations by spring 2011: Branch Avenue, Suitland, Naylor Road, Southern Avenue, West Hyattsville, Prince George's Plaza, College Park-U-Md., Greenbelt, Morgan Boulevard, Addison Road-Seat Pleasant, Van Dorn Street, Dunn Loring, West Falls Church-VT/UVA, East Falls Church, Cheverly, Landover, Rockville, White Flint, Twinbrook, Grosvenor-Strathmore, Forest Glen and Glenmont.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company