From a nondescript office building among the sea of beige high-rises that form Crystal City, a bureaucrat is plotting a rebellion.
Rob Lao, a 41-year-old federal worker and suburbanite, is calling for his 650,000 fellow Metro riders to boycott the subway system for one day next week. Lao wants riders to stay off the trains Wednesday to protest a proposed fare increase, likely to take effect next month -- the second year in a row that Metro would be raising fares.
"It's like that line from the movie 'Network,' " Lao said yesterday: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."
The current proposal would increase bus fares by 5 cents, to $1.25; increase the base rail fare by 15 cents, to $1.35; and raise parking fees by 75 cents a day. The maximum peak fare on rail would increase by 30 cents. The plan now goes to the local jurisdictions for review and comment before the Metro board casts a final vote in June. Increases would likely go into effect June 27.
Lao, whose activism to this point has been limited to his homeowners association in Montgomery County, said he hatched the idea while fuming about the possible fare increase with colleagues at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, where he works in the human resources department.
"It's getting to the point where the average commuter is going to think, 'Hey, it's cheaper to drive,' " said Lao, a daily Metro rider for two years. "The only reason that would keep me from driving is that I'm still a believer in mass transit for environmental purposes. Metro also offers a bit of reliability in terms of time. On any given day, the time it takes to drive depends on the weather, on whether there's an accident. But with this fare increase, it's getting to the point where I can live with the [uncertainty of driving] if I can have a few dollars more in my pocket."
A co-worker, 59-year-old Ken Guarino, plans to help distribute fliers about the boycott of Metro. "Rob and I here, we're just middle-of-the-road people," said Guarino, a Springfield resident and daily Blue Line rider for three years. "We're just offended by this."
Their rationale for the boycott goes like this: If Metro riders avoid the subway Wednesday and climbed into their cars, the ensuing traffic jams would convince public policy of the vital importance of Metro and make them realize that governments -- and not riders -- should carry the brunt of the cost of public transportation.
"I know all the counties and states are strapped, budget-wise," Lao said. "But I don't think they appreciate what kind of impact this fare increase will have on the region."
Lao, Guarino and their wives plan to distribute fliers with the heading "Not on My Back!" on the Metro in the next several days detailing the boycott and the reasons behind it. Lao says he will print about 1,000 fliers at a cost of about $100. Then they are hoping for word of mouth to spread the message.
Transit managers expect that the proposed fares would make Metro too expensive for 3,200 daily bus and 13,900 daily subway riders, prompting them to stop using the system.
If the Metro board approves the proposal, it would mark the second consecutive year that Metro directors raised fares and fees to fill a shortage in their operating budget and then returned extra revenue to local governments to reduce the increase of their annual subsidies.
Metro's operating costs are paid by three sources: fares from passengers, subsidies from local governments and revenue raised by Metro through advertising and other sources.
Riders overwhelmingly oppose the fare and fee increases. More than 85 percent of those who testified at public hearings or wrote to Metro this spring were reluctant to pay more. But Metro directors say passengers should absorb a larger share of the cost of mass transit. The package would increase passenger fares and fees by 6.4 percent; government subsidies would increase by 3.6 percent, transit officials said.
Metro passengers already pay a higher share of their rides than do mass transit riders in other cities. Metro fares cover 55 percent of the operating cost of a ride; the national average for public transit systems in 2001 was 38 percent.
The transit system says it needs more money from riders to close a projected gap of about $23.4 million in next year's $930 million operating budget. But the fare and fee package under consideration would raise $28 million, and Metro directors say they want to send $5 million back to local governments to reduce the rate of increase of their annual subsidies.
Metro board Chairman Robert Smith, who represents Maryland, agreed with Lao that the federal government ought to give more financial support to Metro but said that local governments cannot afford to do the same. "The state does not print money; the federal government does," Smith said.
Smith and others have noted that fares and fees remained constant from 1995 to 2003, while operating subsidies paid by local governments to Metro grew every year. He says it's time for the passengers to pay more and give cash-strapped local governments some relief.
"It's not an easy thing to raise fares at any time," Smith said. "There's a very broad spectrum of income in this region from top to bottom, and there are people for whom it is difficult to earn the amount of money needed to basically live their lives and take public transportation. But nevertheless, the operation of the system has a cost associated with it."