In a basement church hall in Anacostia, the voice of Jennifer Warren drifted from the back of the room, just above a whisper. “I am a dialysis patient,” she told a panel of Metro transit officials one recent evening. From her wheelchair, clutching a microphone, she said: “I am diabetic. I am blind in one eye completely, and in the other, I have very limited vision.”
On stage, facing an audience of Metro customers, including Warren, who are worried about fare increases, the transit agency’s board chairman, Tom Downs, listened politely, flanked by General Manager Richard Sarles and Sarles’s chief financial officer, Carol Kissal.
“I am unable to go to the doctor’s to control my blood sugar,” said Warren, who is in her 40s and lives alone on a fixed income in Temple Hills. Merely talking for three minutes Monday night seemed to sap her stamina. “I’m sometimes unable to go to dialysis because the fares are so expensive. . . . I’m supposed to go three days a week, but I don’t often get there.”
At the fourth of six public hearings on Metro’s proposed $2.86 billion budget for the next fiscal year, in the hush of Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, Warren gathered her breath and said weakly, “Sometimes I drive my wheelchair to and from dialysis, which is dangerous because of my vision.”
She was taking part in an annual Metro ritual: the community comment period on the agency’s spending plan for the 12 months starting in July, an opportunity for the transit system’s vast and varied constituency to air its grievances, face to face with the top brass. This year, given the proposed fare increases, officials got an earful from Metro-dependent folks such as Warren who struggle daily on the margins of the economy.
After sessions in Greenbelt, Springfield, Anacostia, Rockville and Arlington County, the comment period, which began Jan. 29, ended Thursday evening at the agency’s headquarters in the District. Like many who spoke, Warren relies on MetroAccess, a door-to-door van service for people with disabilities who can’t easily ride trains or buses. A lot of MetroAccess customers get by on meager incomes. So every nickel makes a difference.
The fee for a MetroAccess ride is double whatever the fare would be for a train or bus trip between the same two points. Metro’s board of directors has voted to consider increasing subway fares by up to 4 percent and charging cash-paying bus riders as much as $2.10, compared with the current $1.80. It’s likely that the increases, when finally approved, will be lower than that. Yet still, MetroAccess patrons will feel twice the pain.
“This means you have to make a decision on trips,” said Paul Semelfort, 38, of Capitol Heights. At Wednesday’s hearing in Arlington’s main public library, after he had addressed the Metro panel, Semelfort leaned on his cane in a hallway outside the auditorium.
“Can you afford to go to physical therapy?” he said, shaking his head. “Or do you save your money and go to chemotherapy? Or something else very vital medically. You have to make these choices, and you shouldn’t have to do that.”
The maximum MetroAccess fare is $7 (meaning $14 for a round trip), which won’t change in the next budget. But for those who usually pay less than the maximum, an increase in rail and bus fares will push their daily commuting costs closer to the ceiling of $7 each way.
Like other public transit systems in the country, Metro created a shuttle service for handicapped people in the mid-1990s after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And as with other transit systems, the service is a money drain for Metro. In the current fiscal year, which ends in June, the agency projects a demand for 2 million MetroAccess trips, costing $114 million while generating just $7.7 million in revenue.
At Matthews Memorial Baptist, 53-year-old Heidi Case, who has multiple sclerosis, said she travels in her wheelchair from her Anacostia apartment to grocery stores, movie theaters, doctor’s offices and various places where she volunteers.
“In my case, we just got a 1.5 percent increase in [supplemental] Social Security,” Case said after Monday’s hearing. “But the bus could go up 15 percent or more. Then you double that for MetroAccess. Now clearly, on a fixed income, how can you handle that? You just can’t do it.”
Although most of the comments at the six hearings concerned the impact of fare increases on the poor and disabled, officials heard plenty of gripes and ideas from dozens of other customers — a vocal sampling of the hundreds of thousands of commuters who board Metro’s trains and buses every weekday.
There was Eduardo Martinez, 47, of Dunn Loring, angrily leaving the speaker’s lectern and approaching Metro officials at their table, waving photos of an overcrowded Blue Line train. There was Dave Doctor, 43, of Arlington, holding forth on the nation’s monetary system, then pivoting to the issue of subway dust. And there was an unhappy fellow named Drew, a regularly dissatisfied customer, who lashed out at the general manager.
“If there’s any money allocated for bonuses or raises for Sarles and any of his top staff, that needs to be stricken from the budget,” declared Drew, who gave only his first name when he signed up to speak. “The man makes over $1,000 a day, and I don’t see him taking a pay cut, which is totally wrong.”
For the record, Sarles, who has been in charge of the transit system since 2010, recently received a two-year contract extension, which took effect last month and includes a $16,000 pay increase, to $366,000 annually.
“I understand the passion,” Sarles said after one of the hearings, alluding to Drew’s remarks. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard that type of comment directed at me.”
With the public input phase over, Sarles soon will begin the long process of meeting with government officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia whose jurisdictions provide subsidies that fund a big portion of Metro’s budget.
Overall, Sarles said, the hearings “always remind me of how important public transportation is to people,” especially low-income and handicapped customers. “When I was growing up” — in northern New Jersey, in the 1950s — “we didn’t have a car, we didn’t have a lot of income,” he said. “The way we got to a movie, the way my mother would take us out to Sunday dinner at a very modest restaurant, we hopped the bus.”
Now he commutes each workday on the Yellow Line, from Pentagon City to Gallery Place, and rides other subway lines on weekends, just to look around, he said. “Hearing people talk” on the transit system and in public forums “has more impact on me than looking at numbers,” Sarles said. “In many ways, it refreshes me.”
Not everyone at the hearings was opposed to his planned fare hikes.
“If you’re upset about the increase, the place to go is not to these people, it’s to the federal government,” said Doctor, in defense of Metro. After rattling off a bunch of percentages regarding growth in the nation’s money supply, he said: “There are so many more dollars out there now. The Federal Reserve created this. . . . The fares actually are not going up. The value of our money has gone down.”
Doctor, who manages an apartment building, said: “To put it in perspective, let’s say they charged one bottle of water for a fare. Then they increased it to two bottles of water. But then you find out the bottle only has 25 percent as much water as it used to.” He went on in this vein until a buzzer sounded, signaling his three minutes were up.
To Martinez, an IT specialist for the State Department who commutes on the Blue Line, rail traffic is a huge aggravation. Specifically, he was in high dudgeon over the number of Virginia-bound Orange Line trains (too many) and Blue Line trains (too few) passing through the Foggy Bottom station during evening rush hours. The result: When a Blue Line train rolls in, Martinez informed the panel, usually it’s “packed to the wazoo.”
Stalking toward the table of Metro officials, Martinez announced, “I got pictures of a woman with her 16-month-old son.” He was referring to a young mother he occasionally sees on his way home from work, jammed in with him like a Blue Line sardine. Holding the photos on a digital tablet inches from the officials’ faces, he said: “Look at that! Okay?
“She has to push herself to get into this train. . . . And she’s carrying a stroller. So I say to people on the train, ‘Speak up!’ I say, ‘Aren’t you all tired of this mess?’ ”
Stepping back to the lectern, still steaming, he said, “We’re very tired of this mess.”
And there was Mary Cuthbert, who lives in Anacostia and gave her age as “senior citizen.” She works downtown — she wouldn’t say where — and rides the Green Line to Gallery Place on weekday mornings, before switching trains.
“Walk pattern!” she kept saying. “Walk pattern!”
She told Sarles and the others: “When you get off at Gallery Place, the people who are getting off the train should walk against the wall. The people who are getting on the train should walk closer to the tracks. Now, how do you change that walk pattern? You need to do it on the loudspeakers. And you need to have people there to show them how to move quickly and smoothly at Gallery Place.
“You’re bumping into each other,” she said. “People running to catch the train, trying to knock you over, which is ridiculous. We need a walk pattern! . . . Walk against the wall!
“And, please, try to stay in twos,” she added. “Meet a new friend while you’re walking.”