D.C. Metro fare increases begin over the weekend

By Ann Scott Tyson and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 25, 2010; B01

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."

Connaughton said he still was negotiating with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission to give up two of its seats.

"We are simply asking for the same level of representation already given to the federal government, the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia," he said.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that Connaughton told Metro's Chief of Staff on Wednesday that he was "considering an agreement" that would facilitate the Commonwealth of Virginia meeting its funding commitment and that information was passed to Board members Thursday morning. "However the timing of when this would occur was unclear," she said.

"After today's Metro Board meeting, Mr. Connaughton was at Metro Headquarters and explained to Virginia's Metro Board representatives that he would commit to the funding with no strings attached provided he had an understanding that there would be dialog at NVTC towards State representation on the Metro Board," Farbstein said.

In a shift that could provide new conveniences for Metro riders, the board approved licenses that would allow retailers to place DVD rental machines and trolley tour ticket booths at 13 Metro stations, a first for the transit agency.

The licenses will allow NCR/Blockbuster to put DVD machines at Gallery Place, Metro Center and Pentagon City.

Movie Solution will place DVD rental machines at 10 stations: Farragut North, Farragut West, Foggy Bottom, L'Enfant Plaza, Metro Center, Union Station, Bethesda, New Carrollton, Shady Grove and Rosslyn. Old Town Trolley Tours will place ticket sales and information booths at both entrances of Smithsonian Station. The equipment will be installed between the fall and the beginning of next year, said Nat Bottigheimer, Metro's director of planning and joint development.

The licenses are projected to raise nearly $1 million over eight years. "This is the first time Metro has had a direct contract with a retail vendor in stations," said Steven E. Goldin, Metro's director of real estate. Board members expressed interest in expanding the retail presence, and Goldin said Metro would explore creating a master license to allow one vendor to manage the retail activity of smaller businesses.

Metro has made it clear that it does not want food in the stations, which Goldin said is "a significant limitation" for retailers. Metro also does not want retail traffic to become an obstruction for commuters. "The irony is, as a vendor, you want traffic. . . . It's a delicate balance," he said.

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