TODAY THE mass-movers at Metro will try to reach agreement on fare and fee increases -- an issue that has strained the regional fabric of the agency as well as its rail and bus clientele. With a $48 million revenue gap in the budget for the coming fiscal year, something's got to give, and it will be the riders, one way or another. But geography and riding habits have divided the Maryland, Virginia and District officials on the Metro board. Maryland's members frown on proposals to increase Metro's relatively low parking fees; Virginia's representatives, with a heavy park-and-ride constituency in Fairfax but not in Arlington or Alexandria, are slightly less keen about fee boosts; and officials from the District -- where barely 10 percent of Metro's 57,000 parking spaces are located -- think parking fees can take a boost.
Peel off all those layers and there are more: Maryland and Virginia support increases in bus fares, but the District wants to keep them stable, on the grounds that bus riders are most dependent on mass transit and least able to absorb fare increases. City officials even argue for additional rail service: extended hours providing for 3 a.m. closings and 7 a.m. openings on weekends and a 5 a.m. opening on weekdays. D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), current chairman of the Metro board, says that for an additional $4 million, the extended hours would increase Metro ridership by 6 percent.
Everybody in these deliberations is partly right. Maryland's objections to parking fee increases are too stark. Metro now charges $1 to $2.25 a day -- a bargain, even on top of Metrorail fares. Another $1 a day would not be exorbitant. The proposed fare increases -- the first in eight years -- are reasonable: as much as 30 cents on the rail base fare and 20 cents on the base bus fare. Extended hours would serve city neighborhoods more than suburban centers, but earlier openings on weekdays ought to appeal to more suburban commuters.
As a matter of transportation policy, the governments of the region ought to be increasing their subsidies to keep all fares and fees attractive, to lure more people out of automobiles. Metro passengers already pay a higher share of the cost of a ride than do transit riders elsewhere. Metro says its bus and rail passengers pay 55 percent of the costs; the national average is 37 percent. Break out the rail trips, and rail riders are paying 76 percent -- one of highest shares in the country.
At today's session, however, Metro's board members have an immediate revenue gap to close. Budget cuts -- not in bus or rail service, but in middle-management positions -- are proposed to cover half the shortfall. The rest is to come in new fees and fares. As they have over the decades, the representatives of the three jurisdictions must work out a consensus that does not stiff any one part of the region. No victors, no vanquished, but a fair if imperfect agreement.