Some longtime Washingtonians can remember when the basic carfare -- a quaint word left over from the lost days (sob) of streetcars -- was 8 cents. That changed in 1930, when the price went to a dime. It took another 30 years to reach 25 cents -- and about 20 years to triple from that.
Well, a $1 basic fare isn't yet being threatened in Washington, but look over your shoulder. It's catching up.
Philadelphia's equivalent of our Metro board voted last week to raise its basic city subway, trolley and bus fare from 95 cents (which has been in effect only since the first of this month) to $1, effective Aug. 4, equaling the highest in the nation. And the abominable extra fare for transfers, which rewards a transit system that doesn't take riders directly where they want to go, will rise from 15 cents to 20 cents. So far, we've fended off such a charge in Washington and hope we'll never hear of it again.
Within Washington, the basic (transit officials call it the "base") fare on Metrobuses is 75 cents; on suburban buses and Metrorail, it's 80 cents. Fares in rush hours and on long suburban runs cost much more here, as they do in other cities, including Philadelphia.
Washington's current basic fare levels place us in the mainstream among major cities, according to the D.C.-based American Public Transit Association. Basic fares of 80 cents are charged in Birmingham, Milwaukee and San Diego; they're 85 cents in Cleveland and Memphis, and 90 cents in Chicago and New York (remember the long-sacrosanct nickel fare on the New York subway and the Staten Island ferry?).
A $1 fare already is charged in Pittsburgh and Detroit, on the newly opened Miami Metrorail and on buses in two smaller cities, Las Vegas and Fairbanks, Alaska.
The relative cheapies occur in cities that have strong local taxing powers or political commitment to support mass transit: 50 cents in Los Angeles (would you believe it runs the nation's biggest bus system?), on the new San Diego trolley and on Boston buses; 60 cents in San Francisco, Oakland, Atlanta, and on the Boston subway.