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Metro weighs fare increase, rail improvements while prepping for Silver Line

Metro board members Thursday took on the next looming challenge confronting them: How to head off a looming budget shortfall

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke at the ceremonial opening of a new Hitachi Rail factory in Maryland earlier this month. Clarke said Tuesday he hoped the Silver Line extension would be operating for Thanksgiving travel. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

Metro is considering fare increases next year to help make up for lost revenue, while the transit agency simultaneously tries to win back riders frustrated by long waits and Northern Virginians eager to ride the Silver Line extension.

Days after the transit agency won a victory in getting more of its suspended 7000-series rail cars reinstated, Metro board members Thursday took on the next challenge confronting them: How to generate savings or revenue to head off a projected $146 million funding shortage that threatens service levels next year.

The discussion, which included myriad service shifts and fare changes, included no formal votes or consensus, but it did indicate board members are open to raising fares. Presented with broad proposals that could raise fares by 5 percent or 25 percent, Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg directed staff to come back with a third alternative to mull over — a 10 percent increase.

Even a 25 percent increase would cover only 30 percent of Metro’s funding shortage in the next fiscal year, a gap expected to widen in subsequent years. Board members acknowledge the hole is too big for Metro to cover without more support from local or federal governments, but member Matthew F. Letourneau said a fare increase would show Metro is doing its part.

“I do think that it will be important for [Metro] to show that we’re trying to reduce the gap ourselves,” said Letourneau, a Loudoun County supervisor (R-Dulles). “To me, a fare increase, even a modest one, should be part of the package that moves forward for greater discussion. Because certainly everything around the world, especially around here, has gone up in price.”

Letourneau noted that Metro hasn’t increased fares in nearly five years. He also acknowledged the long waits and frustrating service levels Metro customers have encountered since October 2021, when Metrorail’s regulator suspended the 7000-series for wheel movements in several cars. The series makes up about 60 percent of Metro’s rail cars.

“We haven’t provided the level of service that we’ve wanted to over the last couple of years,” Letourneau said. “But hey, that’s changing and improving. We’re getting back to where we need to be.”

As train shortage eases, Metro and bus systems prepare for Silver Line

This week marked a turning point for Metro, which has struggled through crippling crises in recent years. Beginning with the pandemic, which led to an unprecedented drop in passengers, Metro’s recovery has been hampered by the acceleration of telework, leaving trains less than half full. Compounding those problems was the suspension of the Metro’s most advanced cars.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, a regulatory agency that ordered the cars out of service, has slowly allowed Metro to reincorporate them under a regimen of regular wheel screenings.

A recent jump in ridership and the need for more trains to alleviate crowding, combined with plans to open the Silver Line extension, pushed Metro officials last week to express frustrations with the commission’s phased approach. It ultimately led to a compromise Tuesday that allows Metro to use at least 30 more trains and includes steps to reinstate the entire 7000 series in the coming months.

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke on Thursday said Metro was able to run 18 eight-car 7000-series trains, the most since the suspension began. The transit agency plans to increase that number over the coming months, slowly reducing wait times that have generally averaged more than 10 minutes. Clarke said Metro officials will lay out a timeline next week that will chart when Metro will return to pre-pandemic rail frequencies.

To alleviate crowding occurring mostly during weekday rush hours on the Red Line, Clarke said Metro also is deploying extra trains on standby to use when crowding increases.

The biggest decrease in wait times, he said, would likely have to wait until Metro reopens the Yellow Line, which has been shut down for an eight-month bridge and tunnel repair project slated to end in May. The reopened line will provide Metro with better access to a rail yard in Alexandria, allowing for increased flexibility in getting rail cars in and out for inspections.

Metro approved for more trains, plans to open Silver Line by Thanksgiving

Metro’s train shortage had also threatened to delay the opening of the Silver Line extension, an 11.5-mile segment that will bring service to Washington Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County. As those concerns dissipate, Clarke said he hoped to announce an opening date next week, contingent upon Metro receiving accreditations from the safety commission. He said Metro workers are finishing minor tasks, such as installing missing signs, before the agency seeks certification.

The $3 billion project’s opening is four years overdue, but Clarke said he is optimistic Metro can begin passenger service for Thanksgiving travel.

“We’re very focused on opening the line for Thanksgiving holiday travel,” Clarke said during a news conference after the board meeting. “We know how important that is.”

Metro makes case for funding as regional leaders point to federal government

During the meeting, transit officials outlined ways for Metro to increase revenue and cut costs through service reductions to close a projected $146 million operating budget gap. That hole had previously been projected at $185 million, but Metro officials say ridership increases and money from other sources has offset some of the amount.

Narrowing the gap further could require either service cuts, restructuring fares, fare hikes, service decreases, layoffs of up to 1,190 workers or a mix of concepts presented to board members. Metro is also considering charging passengers flat rates based on zones, finding subsidies to go fare-free and a program that would decrease fares for lower-income riders.

Of those concepts, board members seemed most hesitant about shifting to fare zones.

“I don’t love the zone fare idea,” said member Sarah Kline. “I honestly don’t see the benefit of it over the distance-based fare that we have now, because essentially, it’s distance-based the way it’s been conceived here.”

Board member Lucinda M. Babers, the District’s deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure, said zoned fares concerned her because of D.C.’s experience with a zoned taxi-fare system that leaders scrapped in 2008.

“D. C. had its own [zone] concept for our taxicab system and it was one of the most confusing things, especially for our tourists,” Babers said. “And so we eventually got rid of it and went to the distance-based concept.”