- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Rising fuel prices have had a twofold impact on Metro: increased operating expenses and increased ridership. So far, the latter has sufficiently offset the effect the former would have on Metro’s budget. A fare increase would not be the product of higher gas prices alone, Interim General Manager Dan Tangherlini told editors and reporters at The Washington Times this week, but challenges could arise “if ridership levels off or we hit capacity or if we have to make major investments to keep up with the ridership.” At some point, one of these conditions will prevail and Metro will be facing a financial strain. The 2007 budget does not include a fare increase, but Mr. Tangherlini left open the possibility of discussing one for 2008 with the WMATA board of directors. We think that is a conversation that needs to happen.

In 2003, after eight years of static prices, Metro officials increased rail, bus and parking fees to counter a $23.4 million budget shortfall. The next year, Metro adjusted its rates again, moving the minimum rail fare from $1.20 to its current $1.35 and the maximum rush-hour fare to $3.90. These increases were necessary to offset the large budget shortfalls Metro faced. Last week, Mayor Tony Williams accepted a D.C. Council resolution to supply Metro with its dedicated funding — what Mr. Tangherlini calls a very important and useful financing tool — but the measure requires similar commitments from Virginia and Maryland, where dedicated funding is a tough sell.

Over the next year and a half, Metro will be increasing service within the current infrastructure, continuing the Yellow Line, for instance, on the track that now carries Green Line trains. And the Metrorail system itself will be expanded, including the groundbreaking for the first phase of the Dulles Corridor rail project. Both of these improvements will increase operation expenses and require investment in more rail cars. Metro may also face a labor shortage, as it will prove difficult to replace the nearly one-third of its workforce that will soon become eligible for retirement.

Record-high gas prices are making Metro an appealing alternative to driving. It’s clear that the increased ridership is a counterweight to increased fuel costs, distributing the burden and making Metro more effective in its use of energy. But it’s also clear that this principle holds true only to a point, until ridership either plateaus or exceeds current capacity, and that as Metro pays more to keep its trains and buses running, customers should pay more to ride.

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