- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

It’s official. Metro riders will pay more for rail, bus and parking starting June 29.

The Metro board yesterday voted unanimously to raise rail and bus fares, as well as parking rates, for the first time in eight years, to help close a $48 million shortfall in the $1.2 billion budget for fiscal 2004.

After the meeting, officials said Metro is in serious financial trouble unless a dedicated source of funding for the transit system is established soon.

The increases, which the board agreed on after nine public hearings and some internal wrangling over how to pay for extending service hours on weekends, mean that the base fare for rail and bus travel will jump from $1.10 to $1.20. Parking rates will increase 75 cents, to $3, at most lots.

Maximum rail fare will increase from $3.25 to $3.60, and reserving a monthly parking spot will cost $95, up from $65. The cost of one-day rail passes will increase from $5 to $6 and that of seven-day passes will increase from $25 to $30.

Metro also will eliminate the 10 percent bonus that had been added to fare card purchases of $20 or more. The rail-to-bus paper transfer is to be eliminated, but not until SmarTrip technology is installed on Metro buses later this year. SmarTrip card holders will then receive a 40-cent discount on bus-to-train and train-to-bus transfers.

The increases and cuts will generate about $40 million, and $6 million will go to fund an escalator- and elevator-improvement program. Metro will close the remaining $14 million gap by eliminating about 260 positions, many through early retirement.

For several weeks, Metro board members had talked about the system’s impending financial crisis. Yesterday, board Chairman Jim Graham said Metro must find a source of funding to supplement the revenue generated by rider fares and state and local subsidies.

Unlike other regional mass transit systems, Metro must depend on money from the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. governments, which decide each year how much to budget the system.

“We’re past the point where we need a dedicated source of income. We’re talking about a billion-dollar budget without a viable, dedicated source of income,” Mr. Graham said. “We’ve got to come to terms with this issue. … The time is past due.”

Richard A. White, Metro’s general manager, agreed.

“You can’t run a business this complex without some degree of predictability. We don’t have that. … I don’t have any guarantees from anybody over the next year about what they’re willing to do,” Mr. White said.

Mr. White has said fares will be increased again next year and that services are likely to be cut, as Metro is projected to face an additional $50 million budget deficit. Metro says the deficits are the product of decreasing ridership, and strains on state and county budgets, which fund about half of Metro’s budget.

“The ground is moving on the overall ability of all levels of government to fund our capital and operating expenses,” he said.

Mr. White said some of the first services to be cut might be those most recently installed, such as extended service on the weekend, which the board approved yesterday. Metro will open an hour earlier, at 7 a.m., and close an hour later, at 3 a.m., on the weekends. The District agreed to foot the entire $2.2 million bill for the service in an 18-month trial.

Also at risk may be Metro’s planned expansion of rail service to the Washington Dulles International Airport and the system’s ability to give wage increases and extended benefits to workers, Mr. White said.

Metro increased services yesterday, adding 33 police officers to the system and new bus fare boxes with SmarTrip card capability, and continuing the addition of new rail cars and expanding paratransit services for disabled riders.

Mr. Graham said the federal government should contribute more money to Metro.

“The federal government needs to step up to the plate. We have a huge number of federal workers who ride this system every day,” he said.

Board member Katherine K. Hanley suggested Wednesday on WTOP Radio that the region might look to a tax on car fuel to give Metro a dedicated source of funding.

Ridership has risen on Metro in the past four years, but during this past winter and spring Metro was hit hard by severe weather and terrorism concerns. Wet and freezing weather, most notably the President’s Day weekend storm, caused damage to equipment and cut down tourism. Increased terror alerts further hurt tourism.

That trend, however, has reversed itself this month. Metro has seen ridership go above 690,000 six days during the past two weeks, and on Wednesday, Metro had 712,797 riders, the fifth-highest ridership day in Metro’s 27-year history. Average ridership is usually between 650,000 and 670,000 on weekdays.

Mr. White said it was too soon to tell whether the increased ridership is a sustainable trend.

“This is a roller coaster. It’s been up and down,” he said.

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