- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2016

The last time Metro raised its fares, almost two years ago, transit officials cited the need for improving safety and repairing the system.

Today, with Metro facing an $18 billion capital deficit, almost daily track fires and threats of federal funding cuts, subway riders are expressing a variety of opinions about possible fare hikes.

“That’s terrible!” said Tiffany Wilt, 21, slamming her fist onto the empty train seat beside her. “It’s already so expensive. When it adds up, it’s a lot of money.”

But a Department of Transportation employee at the L’Enfant Plaza subway station supported the idea of higher fares, saying something must be done to end Metro’s numerous electrical problems.

“What can you do?” he said. “It has to be fixed. It’s a safety issue.”

Last Wednesday, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans told the Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG) that the transit agency anticipates an $18 billion capital deficit over the next 10 years, $10 billion for rail maintenance and repair costs and $3 billion for the purchase of new railcars.

Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration has ordered Metro to immediately fix three sections of track to eliminate smoke and fire incidents, even as subway officials have prepared a “SafeTrack” repair plan that includes early closures and trains running on single tracks.

The federal government provides $150 million annually for Metro’s capital construction projects but no funds for its operations. The District and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia contribute funds to shore up the transit agency’s shortfalls in revenue from fares and advertising. And COG members did not appear eager to increase their contributions at Wednesday’s meeting.

In June 2014 Metro increased train fares by about 10 cents a ride. During peak hours, Metro passengers pay between $2.15 and $5.90, depending on the distance of their trips. Off-peak hour rates are between $1.75 and $3.60.

Ms. Wilt, a Rockville native who is in her junior year at Massachusetts’ Smith College, said transportation already composes a “hefty part” of her budget, and alternatives like the ride-hailing outfit Uber are not available.

“It’s not an option. You have to ride a Metro,” she said. “Metro is the only way I get home. So [a fare hike] sucks.”

Other riders, such as Linwood Martinez-Bentley, 61, are open to alternative routes. A telemarketer for the Democratic Party, Mr. Martinez-Bentley said it would take “very little” for him to forgo the subway system entirely.

“I’m just jittery getting on the train,” said Mr. Martinez-Bentley, sitting on a bench at L’Enfant Plaza. “If I get on this train right here — if there’s any smoke or anything, I’m taking buses.”

Mr. Martinez-Bentley’s fear of smoke is not uncommon among Metro passengers. Small explosions, arcing insulators and fires have ravaged the rails in recent weeks. Under the “SafeTrack” plan, beginning June 4 the rail system will close for repair at midnight on weekends, and there will be track closures and single-tracking during the weekdays.

Crystal Mathis, 45, got caught in a sparking incident last week. She said her train stopped repeatedly on the tracks before finally pulling into the Federal Center station. Nobody told the passengers what had happened — the only announcement on the loudspeaker was about a train stopping ahead, she said.

Ms. Mathis noticed Metro employees running down the escalators and fire truck sirens wailing outside. Not until she reached her office did she realize that her morning commute had made the news.

“Of course it’s scary [There was] no real explanation,” Ms. Mathis said. “I think that’s also alarming to people.”

Ms. Mathis said she would not continue to ride Metro if fares increase. Her office at Voice of America pays for her train travel now, and she is “pretty sure” VOA would not be willing to increase its subsidy. She predicted she would drive herself or carpool to work.

“But everybody doesn’t have those options,” Ms. Mathis said. “It’s ridiculous.”

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