‘Metro option’ ending for MARC, VRE riders

Officials said the proposed 3 percent fare hike is needed to pay for rising operating costs. (WTOP/Max Smith)
WASHINGTON — For years, Metro had let MARC and VRE riders into the system for free when there were problems on the commuter rail lines, but there had never been any formal agreement to do so. Now, the free rides are scheduled to come to an end July 1.

Metro will no longer honor MARC or VRE tickets during commuter rail disruptions, unless an agreement is reached with the commuter rail systems to cover the costs of the backup plan, which provided some assurances to commuter rail riders in the event of delays or problems on the tracks such as MARC’s Brunswick Line experienced early Wednesday morning.

There had never been a formal agreement for the program, though, and Metro never had station managers track how many riders took advantage of it.

“There was no process for Metro to properly track or seek reimbursement for the cost of these trips, nor any agreement between MARC/VRE and Metro to govern the program,” Metro said in a statement.

Metro said increased efforts to require all riders to tap in and out of its system with a SmarTrip card are a key driver behind ending what has been known as the “Metro option.”

Virginia Railway Express first announced Metro’s decision to end the program in an email to riders Monday.

“In the event of a service disruption, VRE riders may still use Metro as an alternative. However, riders will have to use a personal SmarTrip card and incur the cost of the trip,” the email said.

Metro has been focused recently on ending the use of “swing gates” at station entrances to increase the number of riders who are counted in the system, both to reduce fare evasion and to increase federal funding based on ridership counts — which have been declining in recent years.

“WMATA’s change also impacts MARC riders, and VRE is committed to working with MARC and WMATA for a long-term, regional solution allowing us to add the Metro Option back to our resources during service disruptions,” VRE wrote.

The cancellation of the “Metro option” does not end the Transit Link Card program, which allows regular MARC and VRE riders interested in unlimited rides on both commuter rail and Metro to buy a combined monthly commuter rail and Metro pass through Commuter Direct. It does, however, highlight the disconnected nature of the Washington region’s transportation network, with each rail, bus and road agency often operating independently rather than as at a single, cohesive transportation system.

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