Metro officials spoke yesterday about something they have avoided like the third rail for eight years: raising subway and bus fares and parking fees to shift Metro's costs away from financially strapped local governments and onto passengers.
Worried about public reaction to raising fares, Metro directors instead discussed a "menu of targeted fare strategies" that call for various fare and fee increases as well as the elimination of many discounts. Directors plan to present the proposals at public hearings next month before making final choices in the spring. The new fares would take effect July 1.
The options on the menu include a 30-cent increase in the base fare on Metrorail from $1.10 to $1.40 and as much as a 20-cent increase on Metrobus from $1.10 to $1.30. Daily parking at lots and in garages at Metro stations would increase by as much as $1, and monthly parking rates would increase as much as $20.
Disabled riders would see a sharp rise in fares they pay for MetroAccess, the door-to-door van and taxi service that Metro is required to provide under federal law. MetroAccess riders pay $2.20 for a ride, no matter the distance. Under the options being considered, they would pay twice the cost of the nearest Metrobus or rail alternative, whichever is faster.
A rider who takes MetroAccess from White Flint to Metro Center would be charged $5.20, or twice the cost of riding the Metro Red Line between those points.
Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White suggested fare increases to cover a $48 million shortfall in Metro's proposed $922 million operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
"Either there's a reduction in services or an increase in fares to raise revenues," said D.C. Council member David A. Catania, who represents the city on the Metro board. "I don't see any other way."
Metro's operating budget is funded from three sources: fares and parking fees, advertising and other revenue earned by Metro, and subsidies from local governments.
In the past year, advertising revenue has softened, while local governments have struggled with deficits and curtailed the amount they are willing to give Metro. Meanwhile, Metro's ridership growth has slowed while its costs continue to increase.
Both options -- cutting service or raising fares -- can affect the lives and pocketbooks of Metro's passengers, who make an estimated 1.2 million daily trips on buses and trains. Transit planners have a rule of thumb: They say that for every 10 percent fare increase, ridership drops by 0.36 percent. Some riders abandon the system, unable or unwilling to pay the higher price.
Riders like Sharon Fleischman: "If they raise the fares, I'd consider driving," said Fleischman, who lives in Silver Spring and takes the Red Line to Farragut North to reach her job as director of catering for the Army Navy Club. "I pay $50 a month to park at Wheaton and $5 to ride the Metro. If they increase the fares and parking, they ought to provide excellent service, and they're not. The escalators and elevators are always broken; there's poor lighting in the Wheaton Station. If they raise everything, I'll just drive."
The prospect of higher fares didn't go over well with bus passengers, either. "I'd like to see the government put in more money," said Robert Murray, who lives in Northeast Washington, has no car and relies on the G8, D8 and 90 buses to get around. "It'll be tough on a lot of people. It's going to hurt the poor people in the inner city."
Margaret Jemmott, who is visually impaired and serves on a committee of disabled riders that advises Metro, called the proposed increase "completely unfair. It will have a tremendous impact," she said. "The fares will go from $2.20 to $7 or $8 or more."
Metro's financial dilemma reflects a national trend. Among transit systems that responded to a poll last year by the American Public Transportation Association, 61 percent have increased fares and 22 percent plan to raise them.
Still, Metro passengers pay a higher share of the cost of a ride than do transit riders in other cities. According to the Federal Transit Administration, the average "farebox recovery ratio" -- the percentage of the cost of a ride paid by the fare -- was 37 percent nationwide in 2001. Metro said its bus and rail passengers pay 55 percent of the cost of their rides. When just the rail system is considered, that figure rises to 76 percent, one of the highest figures in the country.
White wants to erase Metro's budget shortfall by trimming about 200 jobs from the agency's payroll of 9,000, for a savings of $24 million, and raising fares and fees to generate $24 million more. As he laid the fare and fee options before Metro directors yesterday, White said that they would raise more than $50 million -- far more than needed -- and that it is up to the board to choose which fees to impose and how high they should be.
As soon as it began, the debate over fares and fees broke down along city and suburban lines, with board members from the District arguing for an increase in parking fees while members from Virginia and Maryland resisted. Only five stations in the District have parking. The rest of Metro's parking lots and garages are at suburban stations.
"I don't see any adverse impact on ridership if we have a reasonable increase in parking," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who represents the city on the board.
But Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley, who represents the county, where every station is adjacent to parking, said her constituents shouldn't be subject to a "double whammy" of increased parking fees and higher fares.
In three hours of discussion, everyone in the packed Metro meeting room avoided using the words "fare hike," and several took pains to distance themselves from the idea. "I just want to say one more time that no one has taken any position on any increase in any year," said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman, who represents the county.