Bob Pickett is my nominee for Hardest-Working Bureaucrat With Most Impossible Mission. Pickett's assignment, which he has chosen to accept, is to simplify the Metro fare schedule.
What he wants to do is probably not possible, given the politics of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. ("Authority? What authority?" Metro General Manager Richard S. Page was heard to say sarcastically, shortly after he took his job as Metro's top man last May.)
Metro charges different bus fares at rush hour. Metro charges different bus fares in Maryland from those it charges in Virginia or in the District of Columbia. Metro forbids transfers from bus to subway but permits transfers from subway to bus, with a surcharge. Metro's subway fares range from 45 cents to $1.60, except on Saturday and Sunday and at odd hours on weekdays.
For everyday users of Metro, it sounds worse than it is. They quickly figure out what and when to pay because they generally make the same trip everyday. For visitors to Washington or newcomers to Metro, the system requires Captain Midnight's decoder ring and the good will of professional riders.
The reasons for this work of bureaucracy can be summed up simply: money and social policy.
The District of Columbia wants to subsidize its transit riders and keep fares stable; Virginia wants to raise fares with the rate of inflation to keep even on costs; Maryland falls somewhere in between.
Enter Bob Pickett, a Metro office chief who is paid to compute the revenue each fare schedule would produce and allocate among eight local governments the subsidy needed to pay the Metro deficit.
Pickett was instructed last year to try and simplify things. He made a tentative, unofficial proposal at a recent meeting of Metro's Revenue and Operations Committee.
If he had reached the end of his proposal before the politicians started sniping at it, he would have explained how, in two years, Metro could eliminate from the bus system charges for all zones, except crossing the District line, equalize fares throughout the region, eliminate surcharges and eliminate the difference between rush-hour and non-rush-hour fares. Simplicity would cost money in the District because the bus fare would have to go to 55 cents or 60 cents (it is 50 cents today in rush hour, 40 cents the rest of the time).
If the first step of his two-step timetable were taken this year, he said, total Metro revenues collected from fares would remain about the same as they are today. However, he said, "there would be a major flow among jurisdictions."
That means that the convoluted formula (designed by politicians) under which Metro's revenues are assigned to each local government to offset its share of the Metro deficit would reduce the subsidy bill in some jurisdictions and increase it others.
Virginia -- which wants to collect the most money possible -- would lose revenues. The District of Columbia -- which wants to subsidize its riders apparently at all costs -- would gain.
Of course, the formula could be redrawn so that money collected on D.C. bus routes would be devoted to reducing Virginia subsidies, but no sane D.C. politician would permit that. Virginia would love it.
Jerry A. Moore, a member of the D.C. City Council, said, "We are not going to raise fares."
Charles Beatley, mayor of Alexandria, said to Moore, "If fares don't follow costs, you are in effect providing a decrease in fares. As long as you can dig it up [in D.C.], fine. In Virginia, we have to go to the General Assembly."
Cleatus Barnett, who represents Montgomery County at Metro, said "It seems difficult to ask Maryland to give up revenues" -- the effect of eliminating zone charges.
Irving MacNayr, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, said, "the only way for a flat fare to happen is [for Metro to become] a regional authority with taxing ability. It's got to come."
Maybe it has to come, but it will be years before it does -- if it does. For Metro to be a regional authority with taxing power would require identical actions by Congress, the Maryland and Virginia legislatures and the District of Columbia Council. It would also require local governments to give up some of their power at Metro.
Bob Pickett went back to the drawing board.