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Metro hints at fare increases to close budget gap

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is expected to release his proposed 2018 budget on Nov. 3. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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As Metro officials weigh options to close a looming budget gap, it’s looking increasingly likely that they will move to raise fares.

In documents released Tuesday to prep the board for upcoming budget negotiations, Metro staff say bus fares could be raised from $1.75 to $2 without a significant impact on ridership.

The presentation on potential budget scenarios also suggests that Metro is considering a slight increase to rail prices — a 7-cent-per-mile increase for shorter trips, and a 10-cent-per-mile increase for trips 6 miles and over. In that scenario,  the maximum fare that riders would pay during peak periods would go from $5.90 to $6.

“The risk to ridership on bus appears relatively low, since $2.00 still represents a good value proposition for most services,” stay say in the presentation. “The risk to rail ridership is higher, as customer dissatisfaction with service reliability is substantial.”

The idea of fare increases is sure to infuriate droves of riders who have already grown frustrated and impatient with Metro’s struggling reliability and SafeTrack-related service disruptions. But increasing bus fares could have a particularly grave impact on low-income users of the system, who often opt for bus service over Metro because of the more affordable cost.

The potential increase in bus fares was one of a slew of possible fare hikes, service cuts, staff reductions and subsidy increases outlined in the documents which will be discussed in a public presentation to the board Thursday. General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is expected to share his proposed fiscal 2018 budget Nov. 3.

Metro officials anticipate a $275-million budget shortfall, sparked in part by declining ridership, as well as the significant cost of a year’s worth of SafeTrack infrastructure repairs.

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By pairing that train and bus fare hikes, Metro would likely lose 1 percent of its rail ridership and 4 percent of its bus ridership — but would still generate an additional $48 million annually, officials estimated.

Budget staff note that board policy is to allow fares to increase with inflation, and to generally institute a small fare hike every other year.

“The goal is for fare increases to be modest and predictable,” Metro staff wrote in their message to the board. “However, WMATA chose to forego any fare increases for [fiscal year 2017] due to service and ridership challenges.”

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If bus fares increase by 25 cents, the minimum price of MetroAccess could also increase. Under federal law, fares for the door-to-door paratransit service cannot exceed twice the price of comparable bus or rail service. If bus fares increase to $2, MetroAccess fares would also be allowed to increase to $4.

The agency intends to hold off on making any changes to parking fees. Staff notes that the agency is in the beginning stages of contracting parking services to a private company and that “parking fees could be re-evaluated following the completion of that process.”

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