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Metro proposes fare, service hikes while emerging from pandemic

For its budget year beginning July 1, the transit system is also considering a low-income program that would halve fares for qualified riders

Passengers board a Metro train in Herndon, Va., last month. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
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Metro is proposing three-minute train waits in core service areas, discounts for low-income riders and its first fare hike in five years as part of a new budget plan that signals a return to normalcy after a debilitating pandemic and rail car shortage.

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke unveiled a draft Tuesday of his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The spending plan avoids layoffs or significant service reductions with the help of federal infrastructure money that transit officials say can insulate Metro — for at least one year — from a harsh landscape for public transit.

Riders would see a roughly 5 percent fare increase, on average, while the maximum fare would increase to $6.50, up from $6. Metro officials say the increases are part of the transit agency’s attempt at simplifying its complex fare structure. The agency also plans to drop its peak-fare designation during rush hours and is seeking the return of an autopilot system for the rail network.

If enacted, Clarke’s proposals would launch more than three years into a pandemic that slashed ridership and fare revenue as part of a shift to telework. Transit officials say the $2.3 billion budget plan responds to trends that have emerged during the pandemic, but acknowledge the relatively rosy financial forecast will be short-lived without substantial growth in rail ridership.

Riders who have grown weary of double-digit wait times over the past year — amid a federal safety investigation that led to the suspension of Metro’s latest rail car series — could see a return to the shorter intervals encountered before the pandemic.

“Customers want more frequent service, and we found that when frequency improves, more people ride and people ride more often,” Clarke said. “Doubling service frequency, we expect, will generate additional ridership for Metro and improve access for our customers in the region.”

The budget plan is the first step in the transit agency’s annual process of setting spending priorities, which over the past two years were dominated by the coronavirus. Those earlier budgets included most of a $2.4 billion federal bailout intended to make up for lost fare revenue, huge shipments of personal protective equipment and touch-free fare boxes and gates.

Four months into his new role leading Metro, Clarke said his debut spending plan was driven by responses from riders and Washington-area leaders, with a focus on delivering reliable service at a cost that would include fare increases for most riders. The plan would generally restore pre-pandemic rail service, but also lop off part of the Yellow Line, which would cease operations north of Mount Vernon Square at stations also served by the Green Line.

The transit system is projecting to spend 3.3 percent more than in the current fiscal year, mostly to support salaries and benefits for Metro’s 12,000-person workforce. The budget includes a $561 million infusion from the federal government, the final chunk of pandemic aid available to substitute for lost fare revenue.

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Metro is proposing to bridge a remaining $185 million gap primarily with $139 million from the infrastructure law. Other sources include fare revenue the transit agency expects will outpace earlier projections, eliminating some vacant positions, reducing redundant expenses (such as multiple call centers) and revenue growth from advertising.

Infrastructure money is intended to be used for Metro’s capital budget — which funds construction projects, vehicle replacements and other non-service expenses — but for one year, the transit agency plans to shift the money to its operating budget to fund preventive maintenance.

The federal money also postpones an inevitable problem: Metro is projecting annual funding shortfalls exceeding $500 million the following fiscal year that wouldn’t decrease without significant gains in ridership, which is about half of pre-pandemic levels on the rail system. Even if ridership rebounded entirely — which Metro doesn’t expect in the next five years — budget officials said a gap would remain because Metro’s collective bargaining agreement with the transit union escalates salaries. Personnel expenses are about 70 percent of Metro’s operating budget.

Transit leaders have called on regional leaders to help increase funding. Some elected officials have suggested the federal government contribute more to Metro since federal employees make up the largest segment of transit users.

Even as Metro struggles financially, Clarke is proposing to cut fares for low-income riders — a national trend inspired by their loyal use of transit during the pandemic. Metro officials said 17 of the nation’s 50 largest transit agencies have adopted some type of low-income assistance program.

Higher fares, more trains: 5 ways Metro would change under budget plan

“This is a big deal for this agency,” Clarke said. “It’s us stepping up and saying as a societal goal, ‘How do we make sure those that need transit access the most have not only a great availability of service, but that it’s really, really affordable.’ ”

Under the proposal, Metro riders who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would pay half the cost of a standard fare, matching the price Metro gives to seniors and disabled customers. The discount would affect about half of Metrobus riders and 15 percent of Metrorail users, according to Metro estimates. It would cost Metro about $4 million annually.

Metro also wants to narrow the cost difference between Metrobus and the more expensive rail system on shorter trips in the hope of luring more riders to Metrorail.

Under Clarke’s proposal, riders would see a base charge of $2 on Metrorail, equivalent to what customers pay now during weekday off-peak periods. A base peak charge of $2.25 would be eliminated.

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The agency is then proposing to raise a distance-base charge levied when rail riders travel beyond three miles, from a rate that varies between 21 and 33 cents for each mile, depending on time of day, to 40 cents per mile on weekdays before 9:30 p.m. The cost for the longest rides would increase by 50 cents, capping at $6.50.

“Those who are traveling short distances, it is either generally a decrease or roughly the same,” Thomas Webster, Metro’s vice president for capital planning and program management, said of proposed fare changes. “There are customers who will pay more as a result of this, and they are customers who are traveling medium to long distances.”

The fare increase is expected to net Metro $7.1 million after taking into account the discounts for lower-income riders. Transit officials say they expect the changes would result in nearly 2 million more passenger trips during the year. Metro would continue to charge a flat $2 fee for weekend rides and weekday rides after 9:30 p.m.

Metro’s service plan for next year includes the return of an autopilot system for the rail network. Metrorail was built for automation, operating that way until a 2009 collision between a moving Red Line train and another train that had stopped near the Fort Totten station. Eight passengers and a train operator died, making it the deadliest incident in Metro history.

While the train’s autopilot system was not found to have contributed to the crash, Metro leaders decided to switch to manual piloting.

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Rail enthusiasts and transit supporters have lobbied for years for Metro to return to automatic train operations. Advocates say rides would be smoother and more efficient, while trains would arrive and depart from stations on time. The system would lessen the chance that human error could contribute to an accident.

A train operator would remain in the cab for monitoring and emergencies, Clarke said. It’s not clear if the change would decrease Metro’s personnel costs.

Clarke said he also believes a shift to automated piloting would increase safety and improve service. Since about 2018, Metro has been restoring and updating the infrastructure needed to run the automatic system. Transit officials this week said tests on the Red Line are complete.

If Metro receives permission from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which monitors safety on the rail system, Metro plans to launch autopilot on the Red Line in spring with a goal of converting the entire system by the end of the year.

Metro board members will review Clarke’s proposed spending plan and hold public hearings early next year to get responses from residents. A final vote is expected in March.