Metro fare hikes, service cuts move a step closer to reality

The Metro board finance committee voted Thursday to raise fares for bus and rail riders, but also approved last-minute amendments to save a slew of bus routes that were slated for cancellation or reduction.

Board members advanced the proposal despite numerous concerns, including whether raising fares would accelerate a ridership decline that has contributed to the transit agency’s financial stresses. There was one dissenting vote.

Metro is facing a $290 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, and General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has said he is essentially out of options to further reduce operating costs. The transit agency slashed 500 positions last year and aims to cut another 500 jobs this year.

[Metro moving forward with fare increases for coming year]

Under the proposal, rush-hour rail fares would go up by a dime, and off-peak and bus fares would jump by 25 cents. Trains would arrive every eight minutes in most of the system, with higher frequencies in the core — but riders would see fewer trains overall on most lines.

Malcolm Augustine, a board member representing Prince George’s County, was the lone board member to vote against the proposal. He warned of the potentially disastrous impact of raising prices at a time when riders appear to be fleeing the system. Ridership is down about 100,000 trips overall from 2009 peaks.

“This is basic economics. You’re raising the price. You’ll lose riders,” said Augustine, an alternate member who does not have a vote on the full board. “That is a bad business move.”

But Jim Corcoran, a board member representing Virginia, argued that the fare hikes would help stabilize ridership in the long term — because a stable budget helps pay for safety and reliability improvements that would win back riders in the long run.

“I think this is a very good business decision to improve the product,” Corcoran said, “because an improved product will bring back riders.”

Others said the fare increases were painful but necessary. Christian Dorsey, who represents Arlington on the Metro board, said Metro could stem the ridership losses by adhering to promised wait times.

“If we can deliver on what we say we’re putting out there, that would be an improvement,” he said.

Aimee Custis, deputy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a pro-transit group, disagreed with the idea that the new headways could bring riders back to the system.

“The thing that will eventually bring people back is frequent, reliable service, and we are headed away from that,” she said.

Board members from the District, Maryland and Virginia also made 11th-hour amendments to save bus routes that were slated for elimination.

The District rallied to save routes B8 and B9 — the Fort Lincoln Shuttle Line — and to modify the H6, which runs between Brookland and Fort Lincoln.

Virginia board members offered a series of changes that they estimated would cost about $500,000 in subsidies for the year. Their list included the full restoration of the 3T in Pimmit Hills, the 1C in Fair Oaks, and the 16G/H/K/X routes that run along Columbia Pike, from Columbia Heights West to Pentagon City.

They also approved some changes to local routes meant to help serve riders affected by the cancellation of the 28X, 7X, 17A and 17F lines.

Maryland members of the board pushed an amendment that would fully restore the following routes: T14 (between Rhode Island Ave. and New Carrollton stations), F1 and F2 (running along Chillum Road), C8 (between College Park and White Flint stations), and the J1, J2 and J3 routes (operating between Bethesda and Silver Spring stations).

Maryland also persuaded the board to allow Metro to continue to operate the J7 and J9 buses through at least October. Those are express buses that run along Interstate 270.

Maryland board members did not offer details on how much those revived routes would cost to operate and who would be paying for the service.

Dorsey praised the amendments for ensuring the agency doesn’t harm Metrobus, “relatively the shining star of Metro at this point,” he said.

Immediately following the vote, Metro Board member Corbett A. Price — who was not at Metro headquarters — chimed in from a conference calling system.

“You may record my vote in favor of it, reluctantly,” said Price, who represents the District.

The proposal is up for a full board vote March 23.

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