Metro riders told transit officials they don't want to pay higher bus and rail fares, while advocates for the disabled called proposed increases "severe" at a public hearing last night in Arlington on the first proposed fare rise in eight years.
The transit system faces a $48 million shortfall in its proposed $922 million operating budget for the next fiscal year. Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White wants to erase the 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. The fares would take effect July 1.
Metro directors are considering a range of fare increases and are measuring public opinion through nine hearings, the first of which took place last night and attracted about 50 people.
The directors are weighing whether to raise the base fare of Metrorail as much as 30 cents, from $1.10 to $1.40, and the base Metrobus fare as much as 20 cents, from $1.10 to $1.30. Daily parking at lots and in garages at Metro stations would increase as much as $1, and monthly parking rates would increase as much as $20.
Fares would rise sharply for disabled riders who use MetroAccess, the door-to-door van and taxi service. They now 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.
"This would have a major adverse impact on the lives of seniors and those with disabilities," said Roberta Timberlake of the Arlington Commission on Aging, whose remarks were applauded by the small crowd.
Ken Reid, a Loudoun County resident and advocate of bus rapid transit, said Metro ought to cut additional fat from its budget before it raises fares. He pointed to a recent labor agreement between Metro and its largest union that calls for a 12.5 percent wage increase over three years. "Some Metro bus operators make more than schoolteachers and firemen," he said. "I don't understand what's going on."
Metro passengers already pay a higher share of the cost of a ride than do transit riders in other cities. Metro said its bus and rail passengers pay 55 percent of the cost of their rides; the national average in 2001 was 37 percent. When just the rail system is considered, that figure rises to 76 percent, one of the highest in the country.
Yesterday, a coalition of 15 environmental, anti-poverty and transit groups sent a letter to Metro to protest any fare increase. The group wants Metro to solve its deficit by raising parking fees by $2 and eliminating the 10 percent discount on Farecard purchases of $20 or more.
"Transit agencies should be in the business of helping people get around without having to rely on a car," said Cheryl Cort, executive director of the Washington Regional Network for Liveable Communities, which organized the coalition. "We should first look at making parking pay for itself before we raise fares."
With more than 50,000 parking spaces concentrated at its suburban stations, Metro is the region's largest single provider of parking. Parking fees range from $1 to $2.25 a day, depending on the location. Those fees are below market levels; Metro subsidizes its parking program by $11 million each year.
Cort and other advocates, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, say Metro should stop offering cheap parking to suburbanites and instead send feeder buses to ferry suburban commuters to the closest Metro station.
Additional hearings, which will begin at 7:30 p.m., have been scheduled as follows: today, Garnet-Patterson Middle School, 2001 10th St. NW; tomorrow, Malcolm X Elementary School, Alabama Avenue and Congress Street NE; Thursday, Metro headquarters, 600 Fifth St. NW; Monday, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 600 Kenilworth Ave., Riverdale; March 4, Fairfax County South Government Center, 8350 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria area; March 12, Oakton High School, 2900 Sutton Rd., Vienna; March 13, Alexandria City Hall, 301 King St. A hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 5 at the Montgomery County Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville.