Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans gave cautious support Thursday to the idea of reducing fares – or at least changing the fare structure – to make up for the expected disruptions that will accompany the subway’s upcoming massive overhaul.
Just not right now. And if you think it takes a long time for your train to arrive, imagine how much longer you’ll have to wait to see a fare cut.
“As this is a crisis situation, in the bigger picture I think fare structure should be on the table as we talk about how to go forward,” Evans told reporters following Thursday’s board meeting. But Evans also said there would probably not be any change “immediately.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld sounded cooler to the notion.
“The challenge there is, again, we only get revenue from two sources: it’s either the farebox or the local jurisdictions,” Wiedefeld said. “That would be the discussion.”
It is a discussion worth having, particularly in light of the dysfunction and inconvenience customers have already endured in Metro’s year of living dangerously. But if anything, riders should probably brace for fare increases in the future as the system continues to scrounge for cash.
The subject of fares came up Thursday after the board’s Finance Committee effectively gave Wiedefeld authority to temporarily waive or reduce fares during major emergencies, such as the blizzard that shut down Metro for two days in January. When limited service resumed Jan. 25 after the snowstorm, fares and parking fees were waived.
Metro also waived fares at some Blue, Orange and Silver line stations on March 14 after a cable fire at McPherson Square, and it waived parking fees two days later after the same fire prompted Metro to shut down the system for emergency inspections. The typical daily revenue from fares and parking fees is $2.7 million or more, a Finance Committee document says.
But some riders — including Metro’s own Riders Advisory Council — have urged Metro to waive or at least cut peak fares because of expected disruptions from the rebuilding plan Wiedefeld unveiled last week. The initiative, which is called “SafeTrack,” will involve 15 projects that will close stretches of the subway for days at a time. The yearlong plan would also curtail late-night weekend service and reduce train speeds. The idea is to allow Metro — which has no excess track capacity because of its two-track design — to catch up with repairs that had been neglected for years.
The plan is set to begin next month, but Metro also announced Thursday that revisions were under way in consultation with the Federal Transportation Administration, which has been given safety oversight of the transit system. Federal officials have threatened to shut the system down unless the transit agency takes urgent steps to ensure passenger safety.
Evans said he’s long advocated for changes in the fare structure, perhaps by moving to a flat fare. It’s “ridiculous,” he said, to charge suburban riders nearly $20 to ride and park every day. Lowering or remaking the fare structure makes sense in light of Metro’s problems and could eventually bring more people back to the system, especially once safety and reliability improve, he said.
But Evans himself had barely caught his breath before he began talking about the need for Metro’s regional partners to dig up at least $50 million each to close a budget gap of $150 million in fiscal 2018. Evans said his preferred method would be for the District, Maryland and Virginia to gang up on Congress to force the federal government to pay $300 million in operating subsidies. But to judge from Evans’ last romp with Congress, he would be lucky to get even 1 percent of that in ransom for Rep. John L. Mica, the Florida Republican who told him to take a hike earlier this year.
So it seems unlikely, and probably unwise, for Metro to reduce fares right now. The system is already strapped for cash, and ridership has dropped to lows not seen in a decade. The latest quarterly financial report says ridership has dropped 5.8 percent on the subway alone compared with last year, and ridership is sure to fall further during the rebuilding blitz.
So keep your wallet out. It stinks, it’s unfair and — except when compared to amusement park rides that are supposed to scare the bejesus out of us — it’s already relatively expensive to ride Metro every day. (As regular a Red Line rider, believe me, I know.) But Metro riders will probably have to pay for Metro’s past sins, including the original sin of designing an ambitious regional subway with only two tracks.