Should Metro flatten the fare?
During my Dr. Gridlock online chat Monday, Metro riders got into a debate about the fare structure. Technology has brought us to the point where fares can be structured to accomplish a variety of goals. One, of course, is to recoup more revenue from what is always a money-losing operation for governments. But fare systems also are used to reward certain types of behavior.
If you click on the Calculate Fare button, you'll see whether the fare proposals now before Metro could reward or penalize your behavior. If all the proposals were approved, Metro would continue to reward riders for traveling short distances during the less crowded times and penalize riders who travel long distances at the busiest times. But it would take advantage of newer technology to add a tier to the fare structure. This new tier, called the peak of the peak surcharge, would penalize riders who use Metrorail at the busiest times of day, though it could restrict the fare penalty to those using the most crowded stations at the busiest time of day.
The peak of the peak surcharge is based on time -- a cost principle that Metro riders are familiar with -- but not on distance traveled. In fact, if you live in the core of the D.C. region, the penalty for traveling three stations is the same for traveling 10 stations. I wrote in my Sunday column in The Post that what Metro's board needs to consider here is not the technology of an increasingly sophisticated fare structure, but whether the structure is fair.
The Metro board is quite likely to make a decision about the new fares Thursday, but it has not had a full debate about this new addition to the fare structure. Judging by the exchanges among board members during its Finance Committee meeting this month, I think it's quite likely that the board will add the peak of the peak surcharge not so much because it makes sense in rewarding a certain type of riding pattern, but rather because it's the main revenue source they can find to pay for other things they want.
For example, suburban board members don't like the proposal to raise daily parking charges by 50 cents. District board members don't like the idea of raising charges for night owl riders -- the weekend bar crowd -- or curtailing the night-owl service. Some board members are not comfortable with the budget's proposals on their jurisdictional subsidies to Metro. The peak of the peak charge could pick up some of that tab.
In reaction to the peak of the peak, some riders argue for the extreme opposite of more complexity. They want a flat fare, meaning that everyone would pay one price, no matter how far they travel or at what time of day. Here's one argument for a flatter fare that I didn't get a chance to publish during the online chat:
Flat Fares: For all the complaining about how a flat fare would hurt the in-town people for being too expensive, think of these two facts.
1) The under-three-miles peak fare of $1.75 is cheaper than the flat fares in New York/Chicago ($2.25), Philadelphia ($2), at times Boston ($1.70 smart card/$2 otherwise), and other cities such as St. Louis/Cleveland ($2.25) and Sacramento ($2.50).
2) The under-seven-miles off-peak fare of $1.45 is cheaper than Baltimore up I-95 ($1.60, rumored to go up to $2.15).
3) Those who commute long distances in a flat-fare system get equal pain as those close in. How is one that, in Baltimore, commutes from Hunt Valley to downtown (as long as Shady Grove to downtown) or one in Boston that goes Braintree-Harvard more special than one doing the same in the District?
I think that a simple, higher, flat-fare system with free bus-Metrorail transfers and peak period pricing (a la Minneapolis) would do wonders and encourage people to go on Metrobus for shorter trips.
Here's an argument against the flat fare that I did publish during the chat.
Flat fare: No, we do not want a flat fare. I made a conscious choice to live in D.C., to pay more in housing costs, to commute shorter distances, to reduce my contribution to traffic, pollution, etc.
Why should I have to subsidize those who made a conscious decision to live farther out? I am all in favor of paying more than my fair share of transit costs -- a well-run Metro is good for everyone. But a flat fare for my 4-stop commute? I don't think so.
We won't wind up with a flat fare. Board members know this is not a fight worth having, especially right now, when they've got enough other compromises to make in approving a fare structure.
But the argument made above by the flat-fare opponent could work pretty much as well against the peak of the peak fare. Those who live close in pay as much as those who live on the region's fringes.
Which arguments do you think should prevail? Who should be rewarded and who penalized?
May 25, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Categories: Metro , Transportation Politics | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metro budget, Metrorail
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