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Fare Wars at Metro

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a regional government agency, is playing regional politics over the proposed fare and fee increases. Nothing wrong with that. The Metro board, which includes members from all jurisdictions that are part of the Metro compact, was set up to allow local interests to battle and finally compromise.

Lena Sun writes in today's Post about a classic city versus suburbs clash: The District is pushing to keep the bus fares stable while increasing the parking fees at Metro lots and garages, most of which happen to be located in Maryland and Virginia.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has proposed that bus fares go up by 25 cents and parking fees increase 50 cents next year. The District now says the bus fare should hold steady at $1.25 while parking should go up by $1.25 to help balance the transit budget.

Suburbanites who will be counting up the potential new cost of their monthly commutes will want to contact their representatives on the board. (Here's a link to a page on the Metro Web site that has all their names. You can also write to me at I expect I'll be publishing some reader letters about the various fare proposals.)

The board will be talking about this at its meeting on Thursday, but it's still more of an opening skirmish than a decisive battle. The board members must wind up agreeing on what fare and fee proposals they'll submit to the ridership for comment at public hearings. The board still can tinker with the proposals before giving final approval to fares and fees that will take effect next year.

Nothing unusual about a fight like this: The District has more people who ride buses or take short Metrorail trips and pay the basic fare. The suburbs have more people who park and take long train trips. What they have in common is a lot of constituents who don't want to pay much more for their commutes.

I think Metro does need to address parking issues. As the region keeps getting bigger and the older suburbs become more densely populated, it won't be possible to accommodate the demand for more parking spaces at the train stations. Right now, the basic rule of supply and demand would suggest that parking fees should increase. But the larger solution is the give people more ways of getting to the Metro stations (buses and vans serving many more neighborhoods) while upgrading the suburban rail systems, MARC and VRE. This isn't an isn't an issue that's going to be solved during the few months duration of a fare fight.

By Robert Thomson  |  October 10, 2007; 10:03 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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I am a fan of transit but I am seriously reluctant to give more tax money to WMATA until they show some effort in getting costs under control; especially their labor costs.

Technology and competition have transformed nearly every workplace in America over the past couple decades but it's still 1976 at Metro.

Posted by: Josey | October 10, 2007 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Metro has too many employees - esp. those sitting around or standing around doing nothing. They are supposed to be collecting statistics; instead they talk loudly, curse, or read newspapers.

Cut those jobs for more operating funds!

Posted by: "No" to higher fares | October 10, 2007 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Metro should get out of the business of parking--let someone else run that. Enter into long-term leases for the current garages, and let someone else charge parking fees. Take the upfront money to expand the system. Allow the lessees to expand the parking if they think it would be profitable.

Posted by: ah | October 10, 2007 11:45 AM | Report abuse


If Metro has the right so set the parking fees then it may be ok. Otherwise it will be what the market will bear. I can see parking increasing to $10 in some locations.

Posted by: ah crap | October 10, 2007 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Why not let the market determine parking fees at metro stations? The market determines parking fees everywhere else in the area--downtown (expensive), redskins games (really expensive), malls (free), and so on.

If we want to subsidize use of metro, then take higher parking fees and have lower rail fares from the distant suburbs.

Posted by: ah | October 10, 2007 12:24 PM | Report abuse

There is no financial incentive to take public transportation. It will cost more to commute in via metro than it will to drive in and pay to park. And it takes at least 30 minutes longer each way on the train. Pretty scary that it is more economical (and relatively more pleasant) to drive...

Posted by: EW | October 10, 2007 12:25 PM | Report abuse

What's the problem with charging market-based fees?

Posted by: Ah Crap? | October 10, 2007 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I tend to agree with EW. What ever happened to the 1.5 billion that Metro was going to get from the Feds as a result of DC, MD, and VA chipping in more funds themselves? Personally I think Richmond and Annapolis should withhold transportation funds from Prince William County, Frederick County and some other suburban jurisdictions until those governments chip in a little to Metro since so many of their citizens use it.

Posted by: xtr657 | October 10, 2007 12:45 PM | Report abuse

xtr657 is on to something here. Perhaps market rates for parking should be charged to counties like Prince William, Stafford, Frederick, and Charles, who's residents ride Metro in large numbers and freeload off of those of us who live in a WMATA jurisdiction. Any resident of a WMATA jurisdiction can pay less.

Posted by: Woodley Park | October 10, 2007 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Raising parking rates at metro will only cause more people to drive. Then, the taxpayers will have to spend more money on roads.

Isn't it just like metro--setting policies that discourage ridership and increase driving. Craziest mass-transit system in the world.

Posted by: Bob | October 10, 2007 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I drive and I'd prefer they drop fares on Metro and raise taxes on drivers. The reason is simple - more people on Metro means less people driving.

As to parking, the charge should be supply/demand based - one of the problems with the current system is that at busy garages you never know whether there are going to be spaces available. That would change if Metro charged more. Metro might also consider charging less at places like Shady Grove, where the impact of getting downtown commuters off the road is greatest.

Posted by: Cheaper Metro | October 10, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

How about a 25 cent bus increase and 75 cents for the parking in exchange for not jacking up the subway fare more than 20 cents? It's already to the poitn where I can barely afford to pay for the commute into work, and I'm not getting paid that badly, about 15 an hour. I can't imagine what this will do to people who earn less than I do. There's alot of workers who get paid really lousy wages and live out in the 'burbs who won't be able to get to their jobs if the full increase goes through.

Posted by: EricS | October 10, 2007 2:19 PM | Report abuse

It would be great if raising parking rates at metro would cause more people to drive, maybe metro trains would only be slightly over capacity.

Posted by: sardine | October 10, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree with the need to encourage MARC use, but instead of doing so they are closing stations. In addition, in Frederick they complain that there is not enough custom ut the LAST train in the morning leaves at am.

Posted by: Ian | October 10, 2007 3:26 PM | Report abuse

With the proposed increases, it would be cheaper for me to drive in and park than it would be to park and take Metro. Time-wise, it would only take slightly longer to drive than Metro.

Nice work, WMATA--by running the system into the ground over the past 20 years, you've made it economically unfeasible to use mass transit.

Posted by: RightWinger9 | October 10, 2007 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Rightwinger--if you can park for free, go nuts. That's the market at work. But parking at metro stations is generally cheaper than any downtown parking.

It amazes me that even with the proposed fare increases it's now "cheaper" to drive. Gas prices are at an all-time high, and certainly have increased more in the last 5 years than have prices to ride Metro. And traffic is worse too. How can it be so cheap to drive now, whereas before it was more expensive.

Posted by: ah | October 10, 2007 3:49 PM | Report abuse

You have to look at the big picture. There are two parts to the picture.

1) Where you park your car
2) How you get between the nearest Metro station to your house and downtown.

Commute cost = cost from home to nearest Metro station ($0.445 cents per mile) + cost from Metro Station to downtown ($0.445 cents per mile) + Downtown Parking (~$10 - $15/day). Assuming you live 10 miles west of Vienna (which is, give or take, 15 miles from downtown), that would be ((10 x $0.445) + (15 x $0.445) + $12.50 + (15 x $0.445) + (10 x $0.445)) = $34.75


Commute cost = cost from home to nearest Metro Station ($0.445 cents per mile) + Metro fare from suburban Metro station to downtown (lets say $3.25) + cost of parking at Metro station (usually $3.75). ((10 x $0.445) + $3.25 + $3.25 + 3.75 + (10 x $0.445)) = $19.15

Cost difference = $15.60.

Lets suppose they started charging market rates for parking at Metro stations. Increase to $12.50 from $3.75 is $8.75 difference, still quite a bit less than $15.60. They would have to double the Metro fare on top of the parking increase to make Metro more expensive than driving. Of course that assumes that market rate at a suburban Metro station is the same as market rate downtown, and it also assumes that market rate downtown stays the same (which it likely will not).

Seems a lot of people are comparing apples to oranges by comparing cost of downtown parking to cost of Metro parking + metro fare, and not accounting for the 30 miles round trip savings from the outer Metro stations to downtown. I know people these days tend not to think about long term consequences of their actions, but just because you don't pay a car repair or insurance bill everyday like you do gas or Metro fares, doesn't mean that those costs shouldn't be accounted for.

And I think the comment by someone with a name "Right Winger" saying transit is too expensive is a little ironic. Maybe if Metro would actually be subsidized more like it is in just about every other American city, then the fares wouldn't be so high. But no, the Bush Republicans wouldn't want that....only if it runs on rubber tires and burns a fossil fuel will it have his support.

Posted by: Woodley Park | October 10, 2007 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Where do most of the poor people live?

Enough said.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 10, 2007 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Everyone who thinks raising parking fees at busy stations will decrease ridership is just wrong. There are only a fixed number of parking spots and if they are filled by 7am at the current price then raising the prices high enough so they fill up at 9-10am instead would maximize Metro's revenue without losing a single rider. A positive effect for the roads is that you would balance out the use of the metro over the whole rush hour rather than concentrating it at the beginning.

Posted by: Z | October 10, 2007 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Woodley Park - Nice work on the calcs! Where did you go to b-school??

Posted by: MBAer | October 10, 2007 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Good point Z. Also, people with seek alternatives--sharing rides or getting dropped off.

Posted by: ah | October 10, 2007 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Another point on Woodley Park's calculations is that you have to account for the cost of car insurance, which may vary if you drive to work. I believe the mileage reimbursement rate only accounts for the cost of fuel and wear and tear on the vehicle, and not the insurance. Distance driven makes a difference in the premium. For example, my premium on the car I usually drive is based on it being driven more than 7,500 miles a year and to/from work more than 100 miles a week (it's 15 miles each way); the premium on my other car is substantially less because it's insured for "pleasure," i.e., less than 7,500 miles a year and not more than 30 miles a week to/from work. State Farm asks me to state the mileage in June of each year to confirm that the lower premium is still valid.

If I were to drive to the Metro, my premium on the first car would likely drop because I'd be driving a lot less (even more so if I were to walk the half-mile to the bus stop and take that, but my work hours don't work well for making the bus on the way home). So there's a potential savings on that front if you take public transport, too. (Don't bother telling me to misrepresent to State Farm regarding the use of my car. I do a lot of work with insurance carriers and I can tell you that's a BAD idea.)

However, to me the somewhat higher cost of driving is balanced out by the time savings. I usually make it downtown in about 35 minutes by car in the morning, and I usually make it home in 20 to 25 minutes in the evening. Via Metrorail it's 10 minutes to the nearest Metro stop, 5 minutes to walk from the car to the train, 5 minutes to wait for the train, 35 minutes to Metro Center assuming no delays anywhere, and then maybe 2 minutes to cross the street to the office. That's about an hour. In the evening the trip is often a bit longer due to what is often a longer wait for the train. So to me, the hour a day I save by driving outweighs the additional cost. I'm not silly enough to think that the value of my time should be accounted for at my billable hour rate, but to me time is still worth SOMETHING.

Posted by: Rich | October 10, 2007 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Rich -- Woodley Park's calculations may be flawed in the other direction. 44.5c/mile is the federal reimbursement rate, and assumes all the costs of ownership (gas, insurance, repairs, depreciation).

Arguably, one should make the calculation using the marginal cost of driving, although that assumes one already owns the car and pays insurance that is not affected by more mileage. For a car that gets 20 miles per gallon (a reasonable middle number), a daily 30 mile commute will cost about $5 at current gas prices (1.5 gallons, $3/gal and add in something for wear and tear). That makes the cost of driving all the way about $7 less than Woodley Park calculated, but still higher than parking at Metro.

So, Woodley Park, where'd you get that MBA? ;)

Posted by: ah | October 11, 2007 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Metro needs to find ways first to trim the waste before it asks for increase. Eliminating the ridiculous overtime policy would be a nice starting point. As to parking fee, it was kept low so that people would ride metro and it is different from a regular parking garage. I think the solution is to have more buses in the suburb connected to the stations so that we do not need to park.

Posted by: Lydia | October 11, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Now now, I never did claim to be a finance expert...but my point stands that some cost needs to be accounted for...for the mileage between the outer Metro stations and downtown. Another point I think I made was that if higher parking rates are charged, but a portion of that cost is devoted to parking expansion, more suburbanites would benefit in the long run. My engineering degrees are from UVA though, BTW :)

I actually did think about this a little more and I realized that maybe city residents should be subsidizing the suburbanites a little, since city-residents are the ones deriving the majority of the benefit of having less cars in our city. I would much rather have thousands of people passing underneath my neighborhood on the Red Line than have those same thousands of people driving right through it on Connecticut Avenue. I know this isn't what Jim Graham wants to hear but there is some truth to it.

Posted by: Woodley Park | October 11, 2007 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I just have a few question: How much of these costs does the District subsidize? How much do VA and MD subsidize? And no matter what the numbers are, why don't VA and MD have to subsidize more? DC can't even afford to keep its fire hydrants functioning while right up and down the beltway we have some of the richest counties in the whole USA. And they are using the District's services and roads and subsidized Metro...right?

Posted by: Alexandria | October 11, 2007 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I'm one person and it costs me about $11 to take the Metro to downtown for an event. The parking accounting for about 30% of the money spent. Raise that up again and I'll be paying $13. Parking is $20 at most locations I park. Since I have friends join me, it's cheaper for us to drive into the city rather than take the train. Not exactly what Metro was hoping for.

If you want to get more people to ride and be happy when riding, get rid of the dead weight (station managers and other employees who take up space doing nothing), stop trying to create your own technologies (SmarTrip, NexTrain, etc.) and go with what works, be honest with your customers and teach the train drivers how to speak properly into a microphone so you can be understood. This would be a good start and then maybe I would consider paying more for the service. But until Metro can get its act together, I don't see any need to spend any more money on them.

Posted by: Parking Going UP??? | October 11, 2007 12:55 PM | Report abuse

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