Metro proposes fare hikes as transit subsidy deadline looms

WASHINGTON — Metro formally unveiled a proposal Thursday to raise fares for trains, buses and parking next July.

The draft budget from General Manager Richard Sarles would increase fares on Metrorail 3 percent, an average of about 10 cents per trip. It would also increase fares on Metrobus about 9 percent, an average of 15 cents per trip. The average parking rate would go up 25 cents, although Metro would reduce the price to park at Largo Town Center and Morgan Boulevard for Redskins games from $25 to $15.

“Why is it fair? We have to operate and maintain the system,” Sarles says. “There should be a balance between what the jurisdictions and the taxpayers contribute and the fare riders.”

Asked how previous fare increases have been used, Sarles pointed to several accomplishments over the past year.

“We’re up to 92 percent on-time performance (on trains). Last month it did drop because he had problems (on the Red Line), but year over year we’re doing better. The same thing with buses. And when we look at escalators, they’re much more available than they were; they’re in much better shape. People are seeing the new lighting at places like Judiciary Square and Gallery Place.”

However, a certain portion of the fare increases will go to increased labor costs, higher union salaries and pension benefits. Sarles dismissed several questions about whether employees are paid too much or whether too much money is going to non-operational expenses that don’t directly affect riders.

Board member Mary Hynes, of Arlington, tells WTOP she agrees that fare hikes are necessary to keep Metro competitive and attractive as a commuting option.

“No system is perfect; incidents happen. Things break down, even on the Red Line. But what I feel good about is that when I look at the overall system statistics, we are getting better,” she says.

“What everyone needs to remember is that the GM’s proposal is a ceiling, but we haven’t decided where we’ll end up. The board is going to have robust meetings with the public about what will work and what’s fair.”

Public hearings and other informal meetings with Metro managers and the Metro board will be held in January and February, with a final vote on the budget likely to come in March.

However, during discussions on the proposal, board member Tom Downs expressed concerns about the fare hike for Metrobus. Downs argued that many bus riders are low-income residents unable to afford such a fare increase. Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal told board members that the bus fare increases would put the system more in line with other cities across the United States.

“I think we’re all concerned about that, actually. I think Tom (Downs) is articulating something that’s on everybody’s mind. I have lots of bus riders in my jurisdiction who that increase will be very difficult for,” Hynes says.

AAA Mid-Atlantic agrees with the fare hike, saying it strikes a balance between maintaining the system and not pricing people back into their cars.

“It’s a question every transit authority has to deal with, whether it’s MARC, VRE, (whatever). You have to set the price at the right level to keep people riding mass transit. This fare increase is priced right to keep people riding Metrorail and Metrobus,” says John Townsend, AAA Mid-Atlantic Manager of Government and Public Affairs.

However, another pressing issue could change the equation: If Congress doesn’t act before the end of the month, the federal transit subsidy will be automatically cut from $245 to $130 per month. The subsidy is given to federal employees to encourage them to use mass transit rather than commuting on local interstates. Metro, VRE and MARC all have sizable ridership coming from federal employees using the transit benefits.

Sarles and Kissal told board members they believe the subsidy will be cut in January, but remain hopeful that Congress will reach a deal to restore the subsidy to normal levels early in the new year. If no deal is reached, it would be the second time since 2012 that the subsidy was cut. Such a move would almost certainly have a negative impact on Metro, which has a large federal workforce using the system during rush hours.

“When it happened last time it certainly had an impact on our ridership and the folks that wanted to use the system. It is major concern for us,” says Sarles. “The most devastating impact will be for the customers, the people who want to ride the system but can’t do as much.”

Hynes says the transit subsidy issue is particularly important to her because of the heavy presence of federal employees in Arlington.

“We’ve lived with this before. It means we have to suck it up and that we’ll see shifts in ridership. I found it interesting that during the shutdown our ridership went down, then came back up when things returned to normal. So we know the impact on Metro,” she says.

Townsend is worried that lowering the transit subsidy will have devastating impacts on our local interstates, affecting commuters who drive.

“We have more than 700,000 people using Metrorail everyday, then add in Metrobus and it’s over one million. However, you have more than 1.7 million people driving to work alone. If the subsidy is cut, we can go back to where we were about 10 years ago when nearly two million will drive alone to work,” he says.

“Our interstate system can’t handle that. It dumps onto 270, it dumps onto the Capital Beltway, it dumps onto 66 and causes bumper-to-bumper agony and more gridlock.”

“It’s not good for anybody,” Hynes says. “It’s not good for the people who are already driving. It’s not good for the people taking transit. It’s not good for the economy.”

Downs tells WTOP while he agrees cutting the transit subsidy would have a negative impact, he’s not sure of the impact on Metro or whether it would actually have a dramatic effect on traffic on our local interstates.

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