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Metro riders could pay more next year

Thursday - 10/10/2013, 5:52pm  ET

metro.jpg
Metro is considering increasing subway fares by 3 percent. (Courtesy of WMATA)

WASHINGTON -- Metro has proposed across the board fare increases next July to increase about $30 million in revenue to help with repairing the aging system.

The proposal would raise the average trip on Metrorail 10 cents per trip, on Metrobus 15 cents per trip, and 25 cents to park in a Metro lot.

"The money goes towards improvements. People are seeing improvements every day. What has been discussed today was really a fare increase that is a little bit less than the inflation over the last two years," says Metro General Manager Richard Sarles.

Metro riders are no doubt familiar with the track work on the weekends, a byproduct Sarles says of the last regime that didn't pay enough attention to maintaining the system. He says it'll take the agency until 2017 before it reaches the point it should have been when he took over the job in 2010.

Fixing escalators will be another point of emphasis with the additional revenue. Starting next year, Metro will spend about $150 million dollars to replace or modernize 128 escalators across the system. Metro has a total of 588 escalators.

Metro is also proposing eliminating the cash surcharge on Metrobus and instead charging a flat $1.75 rate. SmarTrip riders currently pay $1.60, while riders who pay in cash must pay $1.80.

The 5A bus to Dulles International Airport and the B30 route to Baltimore-Washington International Airport would see their fares jump from $6 to $7, with Metro saying they need to keep itself competitive with other similar services taking passengers to the airport.

Metro Senior Economic Advisor Mark Schofield also told board members that the agency is considering two options for parking, although those options may not take affect next July.

The first would be a system where Metro would charge different rates to park at different stations. Schofield says certain garages and lots are overcapacity, whereas others are barely utilized. He suggested charging higher rates at locations overcapacity and lower rates at those under-capacity. The idea could be similar to the variable toll rates on the 495 Express Lanes in which operator Transurban fluctuates the price based on congestion on the road. That way, Transurban believes, the amount of cars using the lanes can be largely controlled.

Second, Schofield said Metro is re-examining their policy at the Largo station parking lot on Sunday afternoons. Right now, Redskins fans who park there to go to FedEx Field pay $25, but cannot tailgate in the lot. Schofield says most fans don't park there because of those restrictions and the price, so Metro would consider whether it should lower the price or even eliminate the fee altogether to make the lot more competitive against other parking facilities near the stadium.

All these proposals are contingent on one very important detail: the government shutdown doesn't last too much longer. Ridership on Metro is down about 20-percent since the shutdown because of the large federal workforce that uses the system. Sarles says each day Metro loses a few hundred-thousand dollars in revenue. Although he didn't give a specific figure, it appears the figure is between $350,000-$500,000 per day.

Sarles was asked whether a prolonged government shutdown or not reaching a deal on the debt ceiling would change the equation for the fare increases in 2014. The answer appears to be yes, but when asked what that magic date is when he'd have to consider steeper fare increases to combat the shutdown, he didn't give specifics.

"That's one of the things we're examining and monitoring. I haven't set a date on that," says Sarles.

"There are a number of issues here. There's less ridership because of fewer employees working. The District has not made it's contribution. There are questions about SmartBenefits. All these things are out there. The best thing that could happen is that this situation gets resolved shortly. As it continues to go on, we're certainly not taking in the revenue that we have to take in. It affects us this year. We have made certain cuts, but it doesn't make up for the revenue lost," he says.

As Sarles referenced, the District of Columbia did not make its quarterly $74 million payment to Metro's operating budget. D.C. Mayor Vince Gray says the payment wasn't made because the city doesn't have the money, due to the government shutdown. No appropriations means a budget hit and cash flow problems.

Meanwhile, Sarles also took an opportunity to express his deepest regrets to the incident on the Red Line outside Union Station where contract worker Harold Ingram was killed on Sunday morning.

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