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Commuters Blast Fare Hikes

Long distance commuters who will bear the brunt of Metro's fare and fee increases told transit authority board members Wednesday night that the plan is unfair. The hearing in Rockville, attended by about 70 people with 26 testifying, was the confrontation I had expected to see on Tuesday night in Reston, at Metro's first hearing on the proposals.

Last night's session drew battle lines between city and suburban interests. Many commuters noted that the impact of the increases would fall most heavily on those who drive to the Metrorail stations at the ends of the lines and take the trains to downtown Washington. Their traveling costs will go up much more sharply than those of people who travel by bus or take shorter rail trips.

"The proposal assumes that commuters who ride longer distances should be punished financially because they ride farther," Laraine Balk Hope of Rockville said in her testimony. "People are already paying more financially to accommodate the distance differential, and they are also paying with their time. Many of my fellow commuters get on at the Rockville station after long rides on MARC trains."

So what should Metro do to raise money? Many speakers said they could accept some fare and fee increases to help close Metro's budget gap. Hope's summary reflected the testimony of many other commuters:

"You could raise bus fares in a manner that is fiscally responsible and financially consistent with a revised, non-distance based Metro fare proposal. Increased public funding for a public infrastructure also seems appropriate."

In other words, share the burden among all of Metro's riders and get our local governments to kick in more. Metro riders generally pay more of the cost of transit service than riders in other cities, but none pays as great a share as the long-distance riders here.

The Rockville hearing had something else that the Reston hearing lacked: words from a local leader. (A little more than a week ago, Virginians couldn't move without tripping over a politician offering an opinion on public interests. None appeared at the Tuesday hearing, where the topic was whether their constituents should pay hundreds of dollars more per year in commuting costs.)

Wednesday night at Rockville, Gary Erenrich of the Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation testified on behalf of County Executive Ike Leggett:

"... within the Metro system, fare recovery is a two-tiered picture. Metrorail recovers from fares one of the nation's highest rates of 81 percent (from the latest quarterly financial report). For comparison, Metrobus recovers about 33 percent. This means that our Metrorail passengers are covering a substantially higher amount of operating costs than the bus system."

This is what the county executive recommended:
-- Limit the maximum fare charge to a 50 cent increase from the existing $3.90 to $4.40 and not the proposed increase to $4.70.
-- Limit the maximum increase in parking charges to 50 cents and not the proposed increase of $1.15.
-- Do not implement an across the board increase in the number of reserved parking spaces. Examine the number of reserved parking spaces on a facility by facility basis. Only one garage in Montgomery County has a waiting list for reserved parking and the county is funding the construction of a second garage to accommodate this parking demand. [at Glenmont]

Questions for you: Do the suburban riders make a good case? Or is it reasonable that Metro's budget balancing should fall most heavily on those who park cars at Metro facilities and ride the greatest distance on the trains? Or are we going to wind up dividing the political strength of commuters by pitting them against each other and lose the battle to improve service for everyone?

By Robert Thomson  |  November 15, 2007; 9:06 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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