The Metro board of directors proposed yesterday a package of steep fare increases and substantial service cuts to help deal with a projected gap of at least $12.3 million in this year's budget.
If adopted after public hearings, the minimum fare for either a bus or subway ride would be 60 cents in all parts of the area throughout the day instead of the present crazy-quilt pattern of different boarding charges in different jurisdictions at different times. Metro's lowest fare now is 45 cents for non-rush-hour bus trips within Maryland.
Rush-hour passengers taking long subway trips or riding the bus between Washington and the suburbs would have to pay considerably more than the minimum and, in most cases, much more than they do now.
The new proposal comes after several weeks of negotiations and trial balloons by Metro staff and budget committee members. Despite misgivings, the six-member Metro board voted unanimously to hold hearings on the plan in early November.
The board proposed putting the fare increases into effect on Jan. 3, just six months after a midsummer fare increase that was the largest ever in Metro's seven-year operating history.
The service cuts, which include eliminating all "night owl" trips between 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. and dropping weekend bus service in Fairfax and Prince George's counties, would be carried out April 1.
Several officials at yesterday's board meeting disagreed strongly with parts of the plan, and predicted that after the public hearings the board would cut it back.
"This is a worst-case package," Fairfax County Supervisor Marie B. Travesky said. "We're going to public hearings with the upper limit of (what the board might do) so we have some flexibility."
Later, Travesky said, "I think people are going to be outraged. I don't see any way they are going to sit back and accept all this."
But other officials said that, unless most of the proposals are adopted, Metro would have to find other -- possibly more painful -- ways of erasing its deficit since local jurisdictions have ruled out raising their taxpayers' subsidy, which already is scheduled to climb over $110 million this year.
Francis B. Francois, who plans to quit soon as the Prince George's representative on the board, described the package as a "politically courageous" effort "to deal with the deficit before it occurs" instead of following Metro's previous practice of letting overruns mount up during a year and then asking local governments for higher subsidies afterward.
He said the proposed uniform minimum fare "will tell the citizens of this region that we have a metro-wide transit system . . . (and) will end the practice of treating the buses as a second-class system. It will buy large benefits for the region in the long run."
In addition to the 45-cent nonrush-hour bus fare in Maryland, nonrush-hour bus rides in Virginia already cost 60 cents and would not have to be increased under the plan. The nonrush fare in the District now is 50 cents.
During rush hours, which run from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, the base for bus trips is 55 cents in Washington and 60 cents in both Maryland and Virginia.
Subway fares, already the same throughout the area, now are a flat 50 cents during nonpeak hours. In rush hours the fare starts at 55 cents for the first three miles with an additional charge of 11.5 cents per mile after that. Under the new proposal the subway fare would be 60 cents during off-peak hours and would start at 60 cents during rush hour with an additional charge of 12.5 cents per mile after three miles.
The boundary-crossing charges between the District and the suburbs could rise 10 cents on all bus rides and rush hour zone charges on suburban bus routes would increase by the same amount.
As a result, fares for commuters riding the bus from distant suburbs to downtown will rise steeply. For example, the round-trip price from Burke, Va., to K Street NW would go up from $3.40 to $4.20 -- a 23.5 percent rise.
Within the District the proposed rise in non-rush-hour bus fares is 20 percent (from 50 cents to 60 cents), which is almost as great in percentage terms.
Both Virginia and D.C. board members, complaining strongly about some of the fare increases affecting their jurisdictions, tried unsuccessfully to prevent them from being considered at the hearings next month.
Fairfax's Travesky said, "We can no longer afford Metro's price for the long haul." She predicted that her county government would speed up its efforts to arrange for an independent bus service to take its residents to Metro subway stops.
D.C. budget director Gladys Mack, a city representative on the board, noted that the off-peak bus fare had just risen from 40 to 50 cents in late June and said that if another dime were added it would amount to a 50 percent increase in six months after remaining stable for 10 years.
"That's just too steep for the public to absorb at this time," Mack said. "A five-cent increase would be sufficient."
Most of the service proposed for cutbacks, including the late-night "owl" trips, is poorly partronized, Metro officials said, even though more than 100 routes would be affected. However, one proposed change -- stopping all Fairfax buses which now cross the 14th Street bridge at the Pentagon -- affects thousands of commuters and brought sharp objections from Fairfax officials.
Metro general manager Richard Page said the projected $12.3 million budget shortfall was caused by an unexpected $8.6 million increase in costs, much of it for cost-of-living increases for unionized workers, and a $3.7 million drop in expected federal aid.
He said the fare increase would make up $6.5 million of the gap, the service cuts $1.6 million and the remaining $4.2 million by tighter management and increases in the interest earned by Metro's short-term investments.
But Page warned that the budget gap might rise by $4 million more if another full cost-of-living increases is ordered by an arbitrator in the transit system's current contract dispute, with its unions.
Last week the general manager proposed a flat 10-cent increase for all bus and subway rides. The new proposals shift more of the fare increase to long-distance riders. Page said he became convinced at Metro staff meetings that the new plan would be "more equitable" than his previous one while raising about the same amount of money.
Under the new proposal parking lot rates at all Metrorail stations would rise to $1.25 a day; Virginia passengers would get no fare reduction when transferring from rail to bus, and two-week flash passes bought for bus rides in Maryland and Virginia would no longer include value for rail trips.