D.C. Metro fare increases begin over the weekend

By Ann Scott Tyson and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 25, 2010

If you use Metro, you'll pay more for your trips beginning this weekend.

Metro's board of directors authorized an extensive package of fare increases Thursday as the agency approved a $1.4 billion operating budget and a plan to cover a projected $189 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The new fares include nearly $109 million worth of increases for people who ride rail, bus and MetroAccess, the service for the disabled.

Because of the complexity of the fare increases, they will be implemented in three stages: on Sunday, on Aug. 1 and in the fall. One potentially confusing component is a new 20-cent "peak-of-the-peak" rail surcharge that will start in August and affect riders who travel during the busiest times. The board had indicated in a vote last month that it would approve the changes.

Rail fares this weekend will increase about 18 percent, with the peak 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.

Metro's board also agreed to cut the cost of SmarTrip cards in half, from $5 to $2.50, because the cost of the cards has fallen and because Metro wants to encourage riders to use them, said Peter Benjamin, the board chairman.

Board member Jim Graham, who serves on the D.C. council, cast the only dissenting vote. He said he was concerned about the effect of the higher fares on the people least able to afford them.

The board also approved a $700 million capital budget for next fiscal year and a $5 billion, six-year capital spending plan, including money to upgrade tracks and other infrastructure.

However, a key capital purchase hung in the balance Thursday as a result of Virginia's recent threat to withhold $50 million in matching funds for federal transit money. The move is part of a push by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to gain the power to appoint two members to Metro's board. The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission appoints two principal and two alternate members. The four seats are now held by elected officials from Alexandria and Fairfax and Arlington counties.

Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, warned Virginia that if it does not act within 24 hours to renew its pledge to provide $500 million to match federal funding for Metro over the next 10 years, it will jeopardize a contract to buy new rail cars. "If we don't get it, we will delay the . . . cars," he said. In that case, he said, the cars would not be ready for the extension of Metrorail to Dulles Airport.

But Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said he told several senior Metro staff members, including Chief of Staff Shiva Pant, on Wednesday that Virginia is willing to pay even if it does not receive the seats. He said he reiterated the commitment by e-mail later Wednesday evening and in person Thursday to Pant and Metro's general counsel, Carol O'Keefe.

"We believe that this issue can be resolved quickly and amiably,'' he said. "Metro faces serious safety issues, and the commonwealth is committed to helping to resolve them in the years ahead."

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