THE PEOPLE who run Metro are having their troubles agreeing on a budget - mainly because the people who run Metro are politicians, and dealing with the budget means dealing with the fare structures. We can't remember who first said it, Confucius or Ted Lutz, but the closer politicians come their election day, the more they cringe at the idea of blessing any fare increase. That's why the District's members of the Metro board balked at a budget calling for higher fares starting July 1. "Very frankly," said board member Jerry A. Moore of the D.C. City Council, "it's politically impossible to raise fares. I don't know how this is going to be worked out, but that is the District's position."
Well, there being no such thing as a free ride, money for the buses and subways will still have to come from somewhere - whether it's from the fareboxes or from subsidies (translation: taxes). And all the suburban jurisdiction that have reviewed the Metro budget have approved it in principle - which means they go along with its proposed 7 percent increase in fares. Indeed, Arlington and Alexandria have asked for even higher increases. But District officials don't want any increase in the intracity bus fare, nor do they think city riders should pay any more for subway rides, which involves a more complex rate structure.
Among other things, city officials argue that many of the District's riders are among the area's poorest. Moreover, the city's rush-hour bus fares already went from 40 cents to 50 cents last year; and new bus-subway service rates have meant paying more, too. Still, if the poor need help that is where special relief could be directed through subsides - for there are District riders who are fully as capable as their suburban counterparts of bearing modest increases in the fares. The basic city bus fare of 40 cents has been the same for nine years - and it's unrealistic to think the rate can stay there much longer.
In any event, there are proposals for a transit pass that would allow unlimited bus use and limited rail use for a certain flat fee. That would tend to ease problems for District riders using the system regularly. If officials can come up with a workable fee, this might be sufficent relief for District members of the Metro board to go along with their suburban collegues in approving the proposed Metro budget.
Throughout Greater Washington, however, there is the continuing effort to find sources of revenue for Metro other than property taxes. An important step was taken last week in Richmond, where a State Senate committee approaved a bill that would permit an additional 1 percent sales tax in Northern Viginia to cover Metro's operating deficit.
Under this proposal, introduced by Sen. Omer L. Hirst (D-Fairfax), the higher tax would be imposed on a petition by three-fourths of the cities and counties in the Northern Virginia transportation district (which would eliminate the possibility of a veto by Fairfax City, as happened last with a proposal for a local gasoline levy for Metro). Two-thirds of the proceeds from the sales-tax increase would be for Metro and one-third for general transportation purposes - which strikes us as a reasonable enough formula.
The need for a regional tax of this sort, imposed uniformly and earmarked for Metro, cannot be overemphasized, in our view. In Virginia, we hope Gov. John N. Dalton will continue to demonstrate his understanding of Metro and regional transportation needs by working for approval of the sales-tax proposal by the full Senate and the House.