The Washington Post

Some messages missing from Metro fare hearings

These vending machines for the Silver Line will be charging the rates that the Metro Board will approve in March. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

There was something missing from the now-ended set of public hearings on Metro’s proposal to increase its fares and fees: a big turnout by riders to complain about rail delays, crowded buses and broken escalators.

People have lives outside of work hours, and it’s highly unusual to find the hearing halls jammed with riders determined to have their say on transit service. But over recent years, the fare hike hearings have shown some trends in public opinion and previewed what the Metro board would wind up doing about the fares.

This round of six hearings, like the rounds in other years, gave people across the D.C. region a chance to have their say on any aspects of the current transit service or the plans for improvements. In some years, it’s possible to pick out strong themes. Many riders would say: How can you ask for more money from your customers when service is so poor? Or a somewhat milder version: I’d be willing to pay more for better service.

Such statements were not absent from this round of hearings, but the main case against fare hikes was made by people with disabilities who use the MetroAccess paratransit service. As at previous hearings, many of them spoke at the final session Thursday night in Metro’s D.C. headquarters. Rider after rider stressed two main themes: The proposed fare increases for rail and bus service will have the greatest impact on those who ride MetroAccess, because they pay twice the comparable fare for rail or bus.

Patrick Sheehan of Silver Spring, who heads the Metro Accessibility Advisory Committee but was speaking as a private citizen on Thursday, urged the Metro board to reduce that two-times multiplier to 1.5 or 1.25. Like many other riders with disabilities, he also called for a reduction in the maximum fare on MetroAccess trips from $7 to $6.50. (The maximum peak fare on a Metrorail trip could rise from $5.75 to $6 under the fare increase proposals.)

While MetroAccess riders set the major theme at many of this year’s hearings, there were other voices. Some riders use the hearings as a chance to have their say about very specific concerns, such as the removal of a bus stop near a pharmacy, the infrequency of service on some Metrobus routes, particularly on weekends, and the impact of fare increases on people with fixed incomes.

Ben Ball, a D.C. representative on the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council who was speaking on his own behalf, targeted Metro’s customer service. Ball said he wished Metro would “focus on solving customer complaints rather than simply acknowledging them.” That’s a view I’ve heard expressed by many frustrated riders who have taken complaints to Metro’s customer service unit.

Ball also observed that most of the planned transit improvements that Metro highlighted during the hearings are in its capital budget, rather than the operating budget supported by the fares and fees.

Several issues deserved more attention during the hearings. One was the impact of this year’s cut in the federal transit benefit from $245 to $130 a month. That adds to the impact of the fare hikes for many riders. Another was the proposal by Prince George’s County government to add a 50 cent surcharge to the daily parking fee at Metro lots and garages in the county. The surcharge, which would be invested in Metro parking facilities within the county, is in addition the the 25-cent daily fee increase Metro has proposed for all its parking facilities. So riders parking in Prince George’s could wind up paying 75 cents more per day, plus the higher fare to ride Metrorail.

Also absent was a big showing among the D.C. region’s political leaders. Metro gives them the opportunity to speak first and go longer at these hearings. And in many jurisdictions, this is an election year. The hearings are a chance for politicians to speak not only to the Metro board members but also to the transit ridership, which should be a significant constituency for them.

Conclusion: The Metro board will approve some fare increases when it meets in March. Because the proposals to the public left the board some wiggle room, they won’t be quite as high as advertised. But the hearing testimony gave the board no political reason to avoid fare increases altogether.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.



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