Metro’s first fare increase in more than five years would hit suburban riders the hardest, prompting agency leaders Thursday to ask for more data and options to lessen the effects.
The meeting Thursday of Metro’s board was the third time board members had reviewed the agency’s fiscal year 2024 plan to keep service operating at frequencies riders were accustomed to before the pandemic while wrestling with the post-pandemic realities of reduced commuting. After managing the challenges of the pandemic and a rail car shortage, the agency is turning its attention to recruiting and retaining riders amid a shift to telework.
The pandemic has altered transit usage nationwide, reducing the number of people getting to work on trains and buses. Without their fares, agencies like Metro are struggling to operate those systems without reducing service, and in come cases are eyeing fare hikes, which transit advocates fear could further alienate customers.
“Fare increases in two respects: The max fare would go up from $6 to $6.50, and by eliminating off-peak fares, the max fare for riders who traveled up to this point in off-peak hours would go up from $3.85 to $6.50?” asked Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland.
Metro General Manager Randy Clarke responded that the budget proposal includes the creation of a new low-fare program that would offer half-price fares to anyone who qualifies for federal food assistance, mitigating the effects on those who couldn’t afford to pay more.
“Anyone that would be qualified in the low-income fare program would actually be getting a 50 percent reduction,” Clarke said. “So some people actually are going to get lower fares.”
He called the budget proposal a “matrix” in which increases for some riders would support decreases for others.
Metro has been hit harder than many other transit agencies because federal office workers are the rail system’s biggest customer base. The agency has survived the pandemic with the help of $2.4 billion in federal relief money that will run out by summer 2025. Even with the remaining $561 million in federal relief and rising revenue from growing ridership, the agency projects a $184 million budget gap in the next fiscal year that will exceed $500 million in subsequent years.
Metro officials said they plan to fill the gap in the fiscal year that starts July 1 by cutting vacant positions, consolidating backroom services and, for one year, moving federal infrastructure money from Metro’s capital budget — which funds construction projects, vehicle replacements and other non-service expenses — to its operating budget for preventive maintenance.
The proposed fare increase is also part of Metro’s strategy as it copes with fewer commuters.
Under Clarke’s proposal, Metrobus fares wouldn’t change, while rail riders would see a roughly 5 percent increase, on average.
Beginning in July, Metrorail riders would pay a $2 base charge — equivalent to what customers pay now during weekday, off-peak periods — at all times. A base charge of $2.25 during peak hours would be eliminated.
After three miles, riders would pay additional charges based on the distance they travel. That charge would rise from between 21 and 33 cents per mile to 40 cents per mile on weekdays before 9:30 p.m. The cost for the longest rides would be capped at $6.50, a 50-cent increase compared to the most expensive rides at existing peak times.
But with off-peak fares now capped at $3.85, the proposed hike during those times is significantly more steep: it would cost up to $2.65 more per ride. (Weekday rides after 9:30 p.m. and weekend rides would be unchanged, at a flat $2.)
Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), a Metro board member and Loudoun County supervisor, said Virginia leaders want to better understand how the proposal would effect riders. He asked Metro’s finance directors to present board members with examples of long-distanced fares using the transit agency’s proposal.
Sarah Kline, a Metro board member who represents the federal government, indicated she wanted to discuss increasing the base charge. Metro leaders have long wanted to bring Metrorail’s base charge down to match the $2 fare on the Metrobus system, in hopes that it would encourage more riders on both systems.
Kline said she understands why Metro wants to get rid of peak-period pricing, but said she hopes Metro will readopt it as ridership grows and peak-hour trains — already overcrowded in some cases — continue to fill.
“This is how pricing should work to sort of manage demand in a certain way, but we’re not at that point now,” she said.
Kline said she wanted to see an analysis on the effects of raising the base charge and whether the 40-cents-per-mile distance charge could be lowered as a result.
Board members will discuss the proposed budget in two weeks before several public hearings in the District, Maryland and Virginia that are scheduled for the second week of March. After receiving public input, board members will vote on the spending plan in April.
Any fare changes would begin in July, which is the start of Metro’s fiscal year.
Also Thursday, Metro leaders announced the agency will begin to provide more trains during the middle of the week to respond to pandemic-era shifts in ridership.
The rail system is operating with about half the pre-pandemic passengers it once carried but as more workplaces summon employees to the office, crowded conditions have emerged on some lines during afternoon commutes. Clarke said Metro has noticed much of the crowding occurring on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, adding that the transit system will shift more trains to those days.
“It’s very clear Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are higher ridership days, not just here at Metro — everywhere in America,” Clarke said. “We have to deliver the most amount of service where people are, not only from a safety-crowding point of view, but for demand.”
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