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Metro considers another round of lower fares to lure riders back

The transit agency is once again considering restructuring fares after Metro’s board passed discounts and fee waivers for bus and rail customers in June

Passengers add and check fares at SmarTrip machines within the Metro system. The transit agency is considering another round of lower fares. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Lower bus and late-night rail fares are among changes Metro is discussing as the transit system searches for ways to attract riders while keeping loyal customers it retained during the coronavirus pandemic.

The transit agency is once again considering restructuring fares after Metro’s board passed discounts and fee waivers for bus and rail customers in June. This time, board members are looking to match fare prices to the wants and needs of the agency’s changing customer base, which includes fewer office commuters and a greater proportion of service workers who stuck with Metro through the pandemic out of necessity.

The board will discuss several new fare ideas Thursday at its regular meeting. Changes would not be voted on for months and wouldn’t be implemented until July, the start of the 2023 fiscal year.

According to a staff presentation made available Tuesday, the fare revisions up for discussion include flat $1 bus fares, $2 late-night rail fares, flat MetroAccess paratransit fares, cheaper parking, special rates for eligible low-income riders, monthly pass changes, and standardizing rail fares at peak and nonpeak times. Metrorail charges more at peak times during the weekday morning and evening rushes.

Metro board approves fare reductions, service increases in bid to lure back riders

The discussion follows significant fare changes approved in June, when Metro passed a slate of fare reductions and service increases in an aggressive bid to lure back riders after a pandemic-induced drop in fare revenue that continues to lag. The price breaks included flat $2 weekend Metrorail fares, lifting a $1.50 rail-bus transfer fee and lowering the costs of seven-day bus passes.

At the same time, Metro has increased service on bus and rail after reductions that sought to limit the amount of time its workers could be exposed to the coronavirus. The agency said bus service is at 97 percent of pre-pandemic levels while rail is at 91 percent of normal.

But passengers have been slow to return. An increase in Metrorail ridership this summer was undercut by the rampant spread of the delta variant, which prompted many companies to postpone the reopening of offices. Metrorail ridership is about one-third of pre-pandemic levels while Metrobus serves about two-thirds of its earlier count.

Metro board members open to fare reduction, service changes to lure back riders

The ridership drop has led to massive fare revenue losses that have been stanched by federal aid. This fiscal year, Metro is using $762 million in aid to plug about 36 percent of its $2.1 billion operating budget. Aid money will help Metro get through another year, officials have said, and the agency is looking to use the next several months to find ways to generate revenue or other sources of income — or it will face crippling service cuts.

Metro officials said General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is not endorsing any of the ideas, which are simply for the board to discuss as the transit system begins planning its 2023 operational budget.

Michael Goldman, a former Metro board member who represented Maryland for eight years until his term ran out in June, had pushed the transit agency to consider lowering fares and offering steep discounts to entice riders back. He said he supports most of the fare proposals being considered, including standardizing rail fares.

“With low ridership, there is no economic justification for peak fares,” he said.

Goldman urged Metro to make even steeper price cuts for up to six months and to cap the maximum rail fare at $3.85 “as an inducement for those long-haul commuters to try Metrorail again, post-pandemic.”

The pandemic shined a light on essential and service workers who relied on public transit to get to work while many white-collar workers telecommuted — something many continue to do. Transit agencies took note, and across the nation, agencies are pivoting services away from 9-to-5 office commuters and toward retail and other service-industry workers whose shifts vary throughout the week. Like Metro, many are also lowering fares.

Keeping those passengers happy and bringing greater racial equity to fares and routes are among Metro’s priorities in revisiting what it charges riders.

Metro board considers lowering fares to lure riders when workers return to offices

Advocates for low-income families said fare cuts are welcome in a region where the costs of parking and ride-share services make many workers transit-reliant.

“Metro is the primary means of travel around D.C. for many of the working poor,” Deacon James Nalls, a program executive director with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, said in a statement. “Any decrease in fares will positively affect the most vulnerable.”

Creating flat $1 bus fares — half the price of current one-way trips — would help more low-income riders than a fare reduction on Metrorail. Metro surveys historically have shown that lower-income riders use the bus more than rail, which is more expensive. The drawbacks, according to Metro staffers, include fare revenue losses and a price chasm between bus and rail service that would discourage “seamless” use of the system by all, which is a board priority.

Cheaper parking at Metro stations would encourage transit use by lowering the cost for suburban residents to access Metro, staff members wrote. Meanwhile, discounting fares for low-income residents, transit advocates say, would bring greater equity when considering that many office and federal workers receive transit subsidies. Metro staffers said the agency could more easily raise fares periodically to keep up with costs if low-income riders wouldn’t feel the effect as much.

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

Under that scenario, Metro could screen low-income riders by using Medicaid or other federal benefit eligibility qualifications. Staff members wrote that local governments also could reimburse Metro for the cost of subsidizing fares. In the District, for example, council members have discussed giving residents monthly credits as a way to encourage transit use.

Lowering late-night Metrorail trips to $2, Metro staff members said, would help D.C.'s economy and service workers, but like many of the ideas, would result in a fare revenue reduction.

Also Tuesday, the Washington Metropolitan Safety Commission — an independent agency that oversees Metrorail safety — reviewed recent Metro safety violations that it said potentially put work crews at risk of getting hit by moving trains.

The commission noted that Metro acknowledged recurring problems with keeping trains and other vehicles away from work sites, and pledged last week to rewrite its roadway protection manual to strengthen track worker protection.

But after hearing recent cases that included a flagman — positioned at a station platform to warn train operators that a work zone was ahead — falling asleep, alternate Commissioner Robert Lauby questioned whether Metro could wait months or a year for revised safety rules and said the commission should work with Metro to expedite the changes.

Metro commits to more stringent safety standards to protect track workers

“I appreciate the long-term activities that Washington Metro is taking to review their rule book and to basically strengthen the requirements for roadway worker [protection],” said Lauby, a former chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration. “But in the meantime, every time we have a meeting, we have several of these roadway worker incidents.”

Wiedefeld issued the order to revise track safety policies last week, citing four incidents since August in which trains improperly moved into work zones.

On Tuesday, Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta responded to Lauby’s concerns, saying the transit agency is taking multiple steps in the short term to improve track worker safety, including retraining and retesting rail operations controllers.