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Metro considers service increases and lower fares

The proposal comes amid signals that office workers may cut back on commuting, and worry over the economic impact on lower-income riders

Nationals fans at the Metro fare machines at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station in Reston, Va., in 2018.
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Metro is considering increasing bus service, extending Metrorail hours to midnight and reducing fares to serve lower-income workers and recruit riders back to public transit.

The proposed changes are meant to address both the decline in riders who have signaled they plan to cut back on commuting even as pandemic restrictions ease, and the economic impact on lower-income workers who rely on mass transit.

“The Washington area is rapidly reopening and Metro remains committed to supporting recovery in the region,” a Metro staff report said. “Proposed changes would serve customers for all trip purposes as the region reopens and especially benefit low-income and minority riders in the region.”

The pandemic has altered transit service patterns across the country, shifting agencies’ priorities away from office commuters toward service and retail workers.

Governments labeled many of those workers “essential” during the past 14 months, and their reliance on public transportation to get to work and keep stores and services operating opened the eyes of transit leaders. Many transit proponents want to overhaul and improve bus service while others, including members of Congress, are proposing to make transit free.

After showing its worth during pandemic, momentum builds for free or reduced-fare transit

Metro has discussed waiving fares for people who qualify for Medicaid services. While free rides are not part of the proposal Metro board members will discuss Wednesday during a finance committee meeting, Metro staff is recommending that the transit agency start a pilot project that would reduce fares for low-income riders, drop a $1.50 transfer fee between Metrobus and Metrorail, switch to $2 flat Metrorail fares on the weekend and lower the price of a seven-day Metrobus pass.

The proposal also calls for an increase in service. Metrorail service would be extended from 11 p.m. to midnight during the week starting this summer. In the fall, Friday and Saturday service could extend to 1 a.m. Wait time between rides would decrease to 12 minutes or less on six rail lines and 20 Metrobus lines.

The fare changes are the same ones Metro approved in early 2020. They were scheduled to be implemented last summer, but the pandemic forced the transit agency to postpone plans and focus on health and safety.

Metro said its latest proposal aims to “support the region’s recovery, earn public trust that bus and rail travel is safe, and effectively communicate changing service and fare plans.”

The fare changes and service increases are just the start of a larger discussion, as Metro researches different fare options that could bring greater equity among its riders and make transit more attractive to new and old customers.

Among options Metro officials said they are open to: capping the amount of fares a person spends by the day, week or month. On rail, the transit agency would consider lowering fares during times that are outside of peak commuting travel times to $2 from $3.85; a zone fare structure based on location and destination; lowering the minimum and maximum fare charges; and free or cheaper parking. On buses, Metro indicated in its report that it is open to a flat $1 bus fare.

The pandemic changed the workday, but will transit riders return?

Fare capping is a concept that some cities have approved to help low-income riders save without having to buy weekly or monthly passes, which typically carry discounts per ride but tend to be too expensive for people living paycheck to paycheck. Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Mich., San Jose and St. Louis are some cities that cap fares, according to the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago-based transit advocacy group.

Metrorail is running at 80 percent of what it had been before the pandemic. Metrobus service is operating at 85 percent. Scheduled service increases this month will expand Metrobus service hours until 2 a.m. on 34 lines throughout the week.

Metrorail and Metrobus ridership continues to lag far below pre-pandemic levels, with Metrobus outpacing the much larger rail system since the pandemic began. On Friday, the most recent weekday for which statistics are available, Metrorail recorded 120,000 trips while Metrobus counted 189,000.

In comparison, Metrorail’s average weekday ridership in January 2020 stood at 630,000 while Metrobus averaged 339,000 daily trips during weekdays.

People seem less hesitant to drive, according to Metro’s research. As of February, traffic in the region has returned to 73 percent of pre-pandemic rates. Restaurants were about 50 percent full as of mid-May, and downtown’s daily population is about 26 percent of what it had been before the pandemic as of mid-April.

Metro expects most pre-pandemic riders won’t return this year amid an altered future for transit

Office occupancy in the District, Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia remains just 24 percent full, according to Metro. Office commuters have historically made up most of Metrorail’s customers.

The transit agency continues to rely on federal relief dollars in place of fare revenue. So far, Metro has taken in $2.45 billion in federal aid with all but $865 million either spent or accounted for in budgets for this year and next year.

Metro board members will not vote on any fare proposals until June 10. Any fare changes would not go into effect until the fall, Metro said.

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