In January, Metro officials let it be known that they were contemplating a fare increase to help make up $24 million of a $48 million operating shortfall for the next fiscal year. This is an unpopular and unnecessary move. Across-the-board bus and rail fare increases would stunt ridership and impose a hardship on lower-income riders who depend on public transit.

Metro should instead:

* Increase parking fees by $2.

* Eliminate the 10 percent bonus on $20 Farecards.

* Improve feeder bus and bicycle access to Metro stations.

An analysis by the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities has determined that instituting these three measures would cover the $24 million shortfall. In the process, access to Metro would be improved and limited parking resources would be used more efficiently.

Metro rail and bus riders now provide an $11 million annual parking subsidy for those who drive to rail stations. Metro's fare increase proposal calls for raising parking fees by $1 at most -- which means that all riders would continue to subsidize Metro parking. By charging $2 more for daily parking and doubling the price of monthly and reserved parking, Metro could generate $17.6 million.

Most transit riders do not benefit from parking subsidies. Further, park-and-riders tend to have higher incomes than other riders and are more able to absorb an increase in their traveling costs.

Also, unlike an across-the-board fare increase, higher parking fees are unlikely to affect ridership: Parking lots are full by 8 a.m. at nearly all Metro stations, and 4,300 people are on a waiting list for the 6,900 reserved parking spaces that already are allocated at $65 a month. All this demand means that parking fees are far below market rates.

Because park-and-riders already go to great lengths to take Metro, if parking were available at a higher price or better feeder bus service were available, these riders most likely would choose one of these options to continue using Metro.

The second measure -- dropping the 10 percent bonus on $20 Farecard purchases -- would generate $10 million in revenue. The original purpose of the 10 percent bonus was to encourage people to buy Metro trips in advance. That role largely has been supplanted by SmarTrip cards and newer transit benefit programs such as Metrochek.

Improving feeder bus service and bicycle access to Metro stations would benefit everyone. Many park-and-riders then could opt to sleep in and take a shuttle bus or ride a bicycle to Metro. For those who still had no choice but to drive to Metro, higher parking fees would mean a better chance of finding a space.

Metro doesn't need a fare increase. It just needs more creative thinking.

-- Cheryl Cort

is executive director of the

Washington Regional Network

for Livable Communities.

ccort@washingtonregion.net