First phase of Metro fare increases takes effect

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Metro riders this week will experience the results from six months of planning and debate over how to balance the transit budget. It started when John B. Catoe Jr., the general manager back in January, presented Metro board members with book-size copies of the Metro staff's preliminary budget. After many decisions and revisions, it ends today with riders paying more at fare boxes and fare gates.

This could have been worse. For months, riders expected that they would be paying more and getting less, but the proposed service cuts were eliminated. It could have been better. The regional jurisdictions that subsidize the transit authority could have subsidized it even more, lessening the blow of the fare increases. But this is a bad year for local government budgets as well as for Metro's.

Some bullets dodged

Some of the feared changes didn't happen. Daily parking rates will not go up, although the cost of a reserved space will increase by $10 a month. Night owl service for weekend partyers was not eliminated, but they will now have to pay rush-hour rates.

Bus services, particularly some threatened routes in the District and Prince George's County, were protected, but riders will now have two hours, rather than three, to make their free or discount transfers.

MetroAccess will not cut back its paratransit service to the federally required minimum range, but fees for the basic service and the surcharge for longer trips will go up.

Some pocketbook hits

Overall, this budget leaves us -- for better or worse -- with the same basic transit system. However, some riders will take more of a hit than others. The charge for the airport buses will almost double, to $6. That's one thing for the B30 to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. It's almost exclusively a service for air travelers, and a good one. But the 5A to Dulles International Airport also serves many reverse commuters. That's a steep increase on a commute.

Talk about steep increases: The annual bike locker fee at Metro stations increased from $70 to $200. Metro points out that the fee is 55 cents a day and that it hasn't been raised in three decades, but that's still making up for lost time in a hurry.

Treasure trove

And there is one fundamental change that will affect tens of thousands of riders. On Aug. 1, Metro will add a new tier to an already complex fare structure. It's the peak of the peak surcharge, subject of relatively little discussion considering that it's a new type of fee.

Some advocates refer to it as a congestion charge, motivating some riders to travel at less-crowded times. It may well do that for those who now travel on the edges of the peak de la peak. For example, a rider who now boards at 7:40 a.m. could set the alarm 20 minutes earlier and go through the fare gate at 7:20. Since the peak of the peak starts at 7:30 a.m., the commuter will avoid paying 20 cents extra each morning. A regular commuter could hold onto $52 a year that way.

But Metro isn't just maneuvering customers around. The transit authority is counting on making a lot of money off the riders, mostly the 9 to 5'ers, who can't come in early or take a slide in the afternoon.

Metro delayed the peak of the peak until August because it has to upgrade its fare system to handle the calculations. But it has achieved its goal of having the other higher fares in place to capture the Fourth of July crowd. Those days of tossing 50 cents into a fare bucket to ride to the Mall are long gone.

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