If you ride Metrobus or many of the Washington region’s other bus systems, it’s going to cost you more starting next weekend.
Metro’s fare increases go into effect June 25 , including a 25-cent boost in bus fares, to $2; transit systems in Montgomery, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties also are raising fares, officials say, to be consistent with Metro.
(Metrorail fares also increase June 25: Peak-period rail fares are increasing 10 cents, with $2.25 as the new minimum and $6 as the maximum one-way fare. Off-peak fares are increasing 25 cents.)
Transportation officials say increased fare revenue will help offset growing operational costs. Making fares consistent with Metrobus will simplify the system and keep fares uniform across the region, they said.
But critics and some riders say higher fares will only alienate customers who are already frustrated with the region’s transit system.
Bus ridership, like that of Metrorail, is plummeting. Metrobus ridership was down nearly 5.5 percent — or about 7.1 million rides last year — compared with 2015 and the downward trend continues this year, Metro data shows. Some of the suburban bus systems also report losing scores of passengers.
“It’s economics 101,” said Arlington resident Jim Hurysz, who opposed the County Board’s decision last month to raise fares. “Higher fares means fewer riders.”
Still, Metro’s decision to raise fares this summer presented an opportunity for the smaller bus systems to raise fares without much scrutiny from riders. Most approved the higher fares in their county budgets.
Regular fares on Arlington’s ART buses, Montgomery’s Ride On and the Fairfax Connector will increase to $2. And their rates for seniors and people with disabilities will increase to $1. Fares on long-haul routes will also rise. For example, fares on some Fairfax Connector express buses will increase to $4.25 from $4.
The fare on commuter buses from Prince William to the District, will increase 40 cents to $6.90 for SmarTrip users, according to the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission. Bus routes connecting to the Metro system will see an increase of 20 cents to $3.45.
(Fares on the D.C. Circulator will remain $1. Alexandria’s DASH system will continue to charge $1.60, which hasn’t changed since July 2013. In Prince George’s County, riders of The Bus will continue to pay some of the lowest fares in the region at $1.25 per ride, a fare that hasn’t increased in nearly five years.)
Along with fare increases, several bus systems also are making service adjustments. More than 90 Metrobus routes have schedule changes, including some service reductions. This includes the B30 to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which will run every hour instead of every 40 minutes weekdays; weekend service will be eliminated.
The combined rail and bus fare increases will affect hundreds of thousands of daily commuters, but are particularly troubling for bus riders, many of whom use the bus because it’s cheaper than Metrorail. Some of the region’s low-wage workers, immigrants and elderly residents on fixed incomes depend almost exclusively on the buses to get around. And the bus is the only transit option in outer suburbs where Metrorail isn’t available.
Becka Wall, a Petworth resident who is a regular Metrobus rider, said that while the extra quarter a ride may not seem like a lot to some, it adds up. She estimates the increase will add at least $125 a year to the cost of the daily commute to and from her office in downtown Washington. Add to that weekend trips and the occasional ride on Montgomery buses to visit friends, and it’s enough to strain her budget.
“Living in D.C. is expensive, and I have a tight budget to make things work,” said Wall, 27. “The bare minimums of rising rent and [Metro] costs just eat up any extra income I have. It’s debilitating to young people like me who are trying to decide if they want to stay long term in this city.”
But officials say that without a dedicated source of funding for Metro, jurisdictions have no other choice but to raise fares, reduce service or both. In Virginia, localities have had to scramble for more transportation funding as the gas tax that traditionally has been used has dropped dramatically because of lower gas prices and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“Localities have a very significant burden to carry in transportation,” said David Snyder, a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. But, he said, increasing fares at the same time that Metro is cutting back on service could lead to more riders leaving the system and long-term financial problems.
“We have got to address, sooner rather than later, the overall funding situation,” he said. “Transportation should not be a burden on locality budgets or on the riders.”
Arlington officials say the 25-cent increase in ART fares will help offset increases in the system’s operating expenses. Since the last increase three years ago, ART has added two routes and ridership has increased by 10 percent, county officials say. Officials in Montgomery and Fairfax say they simply follow tradition to keep rates consistent with Metro’s.
“Some parts of the county have only Metrobus service, so by keeping the fares consistent with [Metro] it is more equitable to all residents who use transit,” Montgomery County spokeswoman Lorraine Driscoll said.
But some riders say it’s irrational for the counties to raise their fares to the level of Metrobus when they have lower operating costs.
“Not only should ART bus fares not have been increased, but ART bus fares should have been decreased to encourage greater ridership,” Hurysz said.
Most jurisdictions have blamed recent declines in ridership on Metro’s chronic reliability problems. Many riders use the bus systems to connect to Metro, and as customers have fled Metro, so have many stopped needing bus service. In the past fiscal year, jurisdictions reported ridership drops ranging from 5.6 percent in Montgomery to 8 percent in Fairfax.
Metrobus ridership is down 10 percent compared with fiscal 2016, and 15 percent below budget projections. What’s more, according to the agency’s third-quarter financial report, the chronic service disruptions and operational woes continue to contribute to the decline as frustrated riders abandon the system for other options.
“Overall ridership continues to face service reliability challenges as well as the impact of alternative transportation options, low gasoline prices, and telecommuting,” the agency said in the May report.
Wall said she plans to continue using the bus but will look into getting a bike for shorter trips to save herself the $2 fare. With Metro fare increases, UberPool also might be an attractive option with fares as low as $3 a ride, she said. In addition to the competitive fares, she said, Uber can get her to her destination faster, leading her to reevaluate whether to keep using Metro.
Like other users, Wall said the transit systems haven’t justified the increases.
“I am often stuck waiting for buses for 20 minutes on weekends and even up to 10 minutes on a weekday morning when I’m rushing to work. And then when I get on a bus, I have to fight to get a seat,” Wall said. “If fares are going to keep rising, at least run buses more frequently so that riders can actually have a seat for their ride to work.”