Janet Shirk isn't thrilled about June 28. That's the day the one-way cost of her daily commute on the Virginia Railway Express from Falmouth to Washington will increase from $6.85 to $7.60. And it will mark the second year in a row that fares have gone up on the VRE.
"I don't like it, but what can you do?" said Shirk, a 36-year-old accountant for the Internal Revenue Service who has been commuting on the VRE for four years. "It still beats the stress and cost of driving. Like everybody else, they're in a financial crunch. Being an accountant, I can understand that."
Fares will increase 4 percent to 11 percent, depending on the length of the trip. On average, fares will increase about 6 percent for passengers, who make a total 15,500 trips each weekday on the VRE.
Railroad spokesman Mark Roeber said the fare increase is needed to fill a $1 million gap projected for next year's $54 million operating and capital budget. Dale Zehner, acting chief operating officer at VRE, said the main factors driving up costs are rising fuel prices, growing labor costs and an increase in fees paid to CSX Inc. and Norfolk Southern Corp. for the right to run VRE trains on their tracks.
The fare increase is not expected to force any riders to their automobiles, Zehner said. "If we lost any, we would never be able to detect it," said Zehner, whose trains are regularly packed to standing room only.
The railroad's operating costs are paid by fares as well as subsidies from local, state and federal governments. In approving the fare increase last Thursday, the two agencies that own VRE, the Northern Virginia Transportation and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation commissions, decided to keep constant the subsidies paid by local governments. The state's subsidy will also remain the same in 2005.
Passengers pay about 60 percent of the operating costs of their rides on the VRE. That level will remain the same after the fare increase, Roeber said.
In addition to the fare increase, railroad officials restructured the discounted passes, decreasing the discount on the popular 10-trip ticket and creating a new five-day pass that allows a rider to travel on four consecutive days and get the fifth day free. VRE tickets will no longer be valid on Amtrak trains on the weekend, and weekday passengers will no longer be able to ride Amtrak trains with their VRE tickets alone -- they will have to pay a $1 surcharge. VRE pays Amtrak about $10 for each of its riders who boards an Amtrak train instead of a VRE train.
To reduce costs, railroad managers decided in February to eliminate service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Columbus Day, Presidents' Day and Veterans Day.
More than 90 people attended public hearings on the fare increase, and 1,000 sent e-mails, faxes and letters. Those opposed to the increase outnumbered supporters by a ratio of 3 to 2, Zehner said. He said opinion was divided by commuting distance, whether the passenger was receiving a transit subsidy from an employer and whether the rider tended to use Amtrak trains.
Passengers who use stations that are served by Amtrak, including Fredericksburg, Quantico and Woodbridge, were most strongly opposed to the $1 surcharge, while those passengers at stations without Amtrak service, especially along the Manassas line, argued that their fares should not subsidize the riders who can take Amtrak service.
More than 60 percent of VRE's passengers are federal employees, many of whom receive a $100 monthly subsidy from the government for use on public transit. That's one reason public opposition to the fare increase has been somewhat restrained, Zehner said.
Still, Shirk, the accountant, said the $100 subsidy pays less than half of her $240 monthly commuting costs.
And not every federal worker on the VRE gets the government to defray the costs of a ride. Frank Leidy, 46, who works at the Federal Judicial Center, has been riding the railroad for more than 10 years but just started receiving the transit subsidy a few months ago. Until then, he was paying his own way, on the longest and priciest route -- Fredericksburg to Washington.
Leidy says he's watched the trains grow more crowded each year and doesn't understand why robust passenger growth hasn't generated enough money to stave off a fare increase. Zehner said that the trains may be crowded but that that still doesn't generate enough fares to keep up with rising operating costs.
Over the past three years, VRE ridership has grown at a rate of 18 percent each year, or five times the national average.
Designed to carry 10,000 passengers a day, the railroad is expected to reach 21,000 passengers by the end of the decade. To meet that demand, the railroad says, it needs to buy more rail cars and locomotives, lengthen platforms, expand parking and make other investments. It has a $191 million request pending in Congress.