A proposal that would raise minimum Metro rail and bus fares from 85 cents to $1 was approved yesterday by Metro's budget committee as part of an average 18 percent, across-the-board increase that would be the largest since Metrorail opened in 1976.

The action was taken despite serious disagreements among Metro board members, and officials said the plan probably would be changed before it is adopted this spring.

Under the plan endorsed yesterday, the maximum rush-hour fare would increase on July 1 from $2.55 to $3.15, while the maximum non-rush-hour fare would rise from $1.25 to $1.75.

Metro officials are worried about a backlash from riders and project at least a 5 percent slowdown in ridership growth under the proposed increase. They believe, however, they have no choice but to place more of the burden on riders rather than contributions from local governments, which have suffered severely from the slumping economy.

The proposal would bring in about $40 million a year for Metro, which is trying to cope with rising fuel costs and sluggish ridership. The budget for the year that begins July 1 proposed a $37.7 million fare increase.

The fare increase has been discussed for several weeks, but board members have been unable to reach a consensus on the amounts, chiefly because District and Montgomery County officials disagree over the fares that city and suburban riders should pay.

Rather than wait any longer, the board chose yesterday to approve a preliminary plan, hold six public hearings in March and April and hash out a final decision after that.

"We decided we'd let everyone from the different jurisdictions put in what they wanted and we'll argue out the real increase after the public hearings," said Cleatus E. Barnett, the budget committee chairman from Montgomery.

Understanding Metro's fare structure is difficult even for Metro officials. The proposal contains about 65 categories of fare increases for virtually all of the riders who each day take a million trips on the trains and buses. Students, senior citizens, tourists, flash pass users and disabled people all would pay higher fares than they do now if the plan is approved.

Metrorail's fare structure is based on the distance traveled and whether the trip is taken during rush hour or non-rush hour.

Trips of three to six miles would rise from 16 cents a mile to 19 cents a mile; trips from six to 16 miles would go up from 13 1/2 cents a mile to 16 1/2 cents a mile. For trips of more than 16 miles, such as from Metro Center to the Shady Grove station on the Red Line in Montgomery County, the maximum fare would be $3.15.

In the past, the board has approved fare increase proposals and rarely changed its mind. The public hearings are sparsely attended and considered a formality. This time, though, board members believe the hearings may generate more public attention because of the large increases proposed. The last increase, in 1989, raised fares an average of 7 percent.

More to the point, the board members representing the District, Maryland and Virginia are far apart on key elements of the fare increase. Montgomery in particular objects to large increases for longer-distance riders, fearing sharp drops from stations such as Shady Grove.

"I don't believe my county can support anything of that magnitude," Barnett said. "The discussions will be intense after the public hearings."

For its part, the District objects to Montgomery's proposal to reduce discounts for senior citizens, and a Virginia plan to require District bus and rail riders to pay a nickel if they transfer from one bus to another or from a train to a bus. Those transfers currently are free.


.....................Rush Hour.................Non-Rush Hour


Shady Grove.......$2.55....$3.15............$1.25....$1.75

New Carrollton.....1.90.....2.35.............1.25.....1.50

Minnesota Avenue...1.10.....1.40...............85.....1.00