Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro will lose nearly $5 million a month if fares don't rise in July

April 12, 2012 - 12:50 PM
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(Photo: Jay Westcott)

WMATA wants to raise its fares to help close a budget shortfall in its 2013 operating budget of $1.576 billion. But here's the thing. The fare hikes, however they ultimately manifest, are expected to kick in on July 1 ... and WMATA will need to implement these fare hikes fast or will risk losing close to $5 million a month (an equally depressing outlook, from the rider perspective, is that once Metro passes these fare hikes, we'll begin losing an additional $5 million ourselves — eesh).

Metro will have 66 days from the board decision on fare hikes (April 26) to the moment higher fares begin (July 1). Historically, WMATA has allowed 90 days to pass between decisions and the implementation of fare hikes. Once Metro finalizes how it's hiking fares, it needs to change a lot throughout its 86 stations and along its 106 miles of track, and it has just over nine weeks to accomplish those tasks.

How's it happening? WMATA has a rough timetable for how it'll speed through the process.

In the first two weeks, Metro will produce the matrices for calculating rail fares, design how the new fare charts will look, and develop new "SmarTrip fare instruments," as the agency noted in a recent presentation. The next two weeks will entail testing the new fares and programming the changes into the NextFare computer system as well as proofread and verify all the text on the charts. WMATA has suffered from a typo or two in the past — a good proofread never hurts. Then, from day 31 through 45, WMATA will include a final approval process before making the new signs and charts and begin adding these new fares formally to the website's Trip Planner. The final two weeks should feature new installation of signs on the rail and bus, distribution of marketing material, and advance sales. Hiking fares has major implications for how Metro operates, and this year it will be a tight window.

Boom. We're talking 66 days of time, just over two months, relying on scores of employees working together.

WMATA chief spokesperson Dan Stessel affirms there's a lot to change and noted CVS vending machines, Google data, maps, training for front-line Metro employees, and more, as well as gave the figure of $5 million lost every month that WMATA doesn't raise the fares by July 1. The figure sounds right. The recently revised budget shaves $10 million off the revenue that Metro hopes to earn from riders through a fare hike, dropping from $66 million to $56 million,and divided over the course of 12 months, projected revenue from these fare hikes amounts to about $4.67 million a month.

Today the Metro Board met to discuss fares and the new possibilities now that Metro has saved $16 million through cost-saving measures and a higher number of riders predicted for next year. Board members still debated over peak-of-the-peak charges, which will ostensibly be eliminated, and the dynamics of a $230 monthly Metro pass this morning. The Board has 12 days to make its decision on the fare hikes, which it will consider apart from the budget as a whole. WMATA will debate the budget as a whole in May. Little solid consensus characterizes the staff and board's discussion on fares, and riders naturally object to notions of increases at all, as we saw in Metro's fare hike hearings.

"Those who showed up did not want to pay higher fares, it’s safe to say," said Barbara Richardson, WMATA's assistant general manager for customer service and communications, this morning.

Meanwhile, the Transit First coalition, which comprises a mix of transit and environmental organizations, unions, and Greater Greater Washington, released the following statement against fare hikes on April 10: "We call on the Metro board and member governments to match the riders' commitment to better transit service. Metro riders have continued to pay more for service, even while enduring service interruptions and breakdowns. The original budget plan allocated a greater burden to riders to make up for the budget gap. Now that the revenue outlook has improved, the riders should get a break on the fare increases they are facing. Transit riders have paid a significant share of the increases in transportation costs for twenty years during which fares have steadily risen without a single increase in the gas tax."

Fair concerns but I doubt they'll affect the planned fare hikes.

More importantly, will the Metro Board be ready to decide on these fare changes — purportedly critical for closing the 2013 budget gap — in 12 days? The cost for the transit agency will be more than $150,000 a day if the fare hike isn't ready in time. Those are the stakes.

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