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Metro fares are a-changin'

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; C02

This week, Metro riders must adjust to the third round of fare increases in six months. It's not just the pace. It's also the variety. Here's a look at what we've been through and what's coming up in August.

Spare a dime?

On Feb. 28, green, softball-size decals attached to the fare gates announced that riders would be charged an extra 10 cents per ride. The Metro board imposed the surcharge as an emergency measure to help balance its operating budget and avoid service cuts. This step, coming in the middle of Metro's fiscal year, was an unusual one, but it was relatively easy for riders to understand. Everyone paid the same additional charge. It expired as the fiscal year ended in June.

The big round

A little over a month ago, the fare charts on the station kiosks were changed as Metro launched a much larger, broader and more varied set of increases. Metrorail fares rose by about 18 percent overall June 27, although the fares varied with the length of the trip and the time of day. Friday and Saturday night-owl riders started paying peak fares.

Metrobus fares rose 20 percent for riders paying with SmarTrip cards and about 25 percent for riders paying with cash. The MetroAccess base fare increased from $2.50 to $3, with a $2 to $4 supplemental charge on riders whose trips start or end more than three-fourths of a mile from Metrobus or Metrorail lines. Fares for airport buses and rental charges for bike lockers were among the other increases.

Halfway to peak

Now, in the latest round, it gets hard. On Monday, Metrorail riders will see yellow, softball-size decals on the fare vending machines announcing that a new fee, called the peak-of-the-peak surcharge, will be imposed on trips taken at the busiest times, 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m.

That would be complicated enough for many riders, but then there's this: For the next few weeks, the 20-cent surcharge will be imposed only on those afternoon trips. That's because Metro is still struggling to upgrade its fare programming.

This should be done by the end of August, but Metro has not set an exact date for applying the morning surcharge. This means that for most of August, a typical 9-to-5 commuter who makes two rail trips a day at the busiest times will pay an extra dollar a week rather than two dollars.

Meanwhile, Metro stands to lose $200,000 to $375,000 in anticipated revenue, depending on exactly when the programming problem is resolved.

How to beat it

The peak-of-the-peak surcharge will be assessed when the rider enters the rail system. It doesn't matter how far the ride is or when the rider exits. That means that if you have some flexibility, you can save money by entering the system earlier or later than the busiest times.

So as of Monday, if you can go through the fare gate at 6:05 p.m. rather than 5:55 p.m., you'll save 20 cents. If you travel on the early side of the afternoon peak, and would normally go through the gate at 4:40 p.m., you could save 20 cents by sliding out of work a little earlier and going through the gate at 4:25 p.m.

SmarTrip differential

Another significant fare boost begins Sunday. Rail riders who use paper Farecards will pay 25 cents more per trip than riders who use SmarTrip cards. Metro had great success moving bus riders to use the electronic cards after imposing a penalty on cash fares. It's hoping for a similar outcome now with a rail fare differential.

Passes

Also on Sunday, the cost of three Metrorail passes will increase. The Weekly Short Trip Pass will be $32.35, the Weekly Fast Pass will be $47 and the Transit Link Card for MARC and VRE riders will be $102.

Cheaper SmarTrip cards

The one thing that will be cheaper is the cost of buying a SmarTrip card. On Aug. 29, Metro will drop the charge from $5 to $2.50. So as the transit authority pushes riders away from paper and toward plastic, it will be making the plastic cheaper.

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