Metro in a rush to put complex fare increases in place

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

Metro is scrambling to implement its largest and most complex fare increase in record time before the first phase takes effect June 27.

The change includes nearly $109 million worth of rail, bus and paratransit increases, which will be implemented in three stages: June 27, Aug. 1 and in the fall. One of the most challenging components is a new 20-cent "peak-of-the-peak" rail surcharge during the system's busiest times.

About 300 Metro employees are rotating through 10- and 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, to carry out the computer programming, fare machine changes and extensive information campaign to try to prevent confusion among customers, officials said.

"I am worried about everything," said Jim Hughes, Metro's director of intermodal planning, who is in charge of pulling together all the pieces. "Our biggest concern is that the information we put out to the public is correct on June 27. Customers aren't going to be happy with us that we are increasing fares. We don't want them unhappy because we have messed up the fares.

"If that happens," he said, "we have a real problem."

Metro is printing thousands of information sheets summarizing the fare changes -- with a phone number to call to complain -- so that employees can give them to any irate riders. The agency also began making station announcements this week, distributing more than 100,000 brochures in English and Spanish, putting up posters, and publicizing the fare hikes on Facebook and Twitter.

"We want to head off incidents between a bus operator and a customer . . . to get the confrontation off the bus" or the rail station, Hughes said. "We need to get that complaint in a complaint system where they are not backing up a fare machine or a bus."

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the implementation is costing "several hundred thousand dollars."

One factor making the conversion more difficult is that the board of directors did not approve the outlines of the major fare increases until May 27 -- and still hasn't given final approval to the fare package; that is expected to come June 24. According to Metro officials, it usually takes six to eight weeks to implement such changes.

"This is a very compressed time frame," Farbstein said.

Already, a few snags have emerged. The fare changes for the first phase were not in place in time to allow all federal agencies to update information for the 170,000 federal employees who use SmartBenefits, Farbstein said. Also, the reserved parking fee increase requires a month's notification to customers, meaning Metro will miss one month of revenue, she said.

The June 27 changes will include increasing rail fares by about 18 percent for peak and off-peak travel and raising the price of rail passes by about 15 percent. They will also include an increase in bus fares and bus pass prices; an increase in the price of trips on MetroAccess, the paratransit service for elderly and disabled people; as well as increases in the bike locker fee and reserved parking fee. Metro plans to begin selling the new bus and rail passes immediately after the board vote June 24.

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