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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.

Flat fare
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?

By Robert Thomson  |  May 25, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Transportation Politics  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metro budget, Metrorail  
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I missed the chat so I couldn't bring this issue up, but . . .I commute by Shady Grove into downtown -- sometimes Farragut North, sometimes Metro Center -- every day, and I park at SG 50% of the time. I don't understand why the "suburban board members" are more upset about the $.50 parking surcharge than the $.50 peak surcharges. In an either/or situation, I would end up paying Metro more for a twice-a-day peak riding surcharge than a once-a-day parking surcharge. I would much rather pay only $.50 more for parking than $1 more everyday simply because I have no other choice than to ride during peak times. I've observed many of the riders at the shady grove station over the years, and very few of the riders who get on at SG get off before we reach downtown (or at least Bethesda) -- a parking surcharge would hurt them less than the peak riding surcharge. I would rather have the parking surcharge.

Posted by: caitlin11 | May 25, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Why do you insist on referring to certain fares or surcharges as penalties? This seems to reflect a bias. WMATA is close to figuring out just what combination of fee/fare increases and service cuts to use to "solve" the yearly budget crisis, and now you start promoting this idea of a flat fare?! No significant support for this idea surfaced during the public hearing period, nor during subsequent weeks, until you began this campaign. Where is the public support for this idea? What advocacy group is in favor of flat fares?

Posted by: kevmm | May 25, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: caitlin11, there are a couple of ways to look at the issue you raise.
-- It's very unlikely the board will approve the maximum possible peak of the peak charge of 50 cents. If I were betting, I'd pick 20 cents, but we really won't know till the board thrashes this out on Thursday.
-- A 50 cent increase in the daily parking fee would hit everyone who parks at Shady Grove. The peak of the peak fare would not. For example, many parkers who get a train at 7:40 a.m. could decide that it's worth it to get to the station 15 minutes early and avoid the surcharge. If the board applied the surcharge only to the most crowded stations in the central zone, that would let off anybody riding from Shady Grove to Bethesda.
-- Also, a lot of rush hour riders get their Metrorail fares picked up by the federal government.

All that said, I think you've got a fair argument that the surcharge isn't really "congestion pricing." Metro would be counting on there being many people like you who have no choice about when to go to work. If too many riders could change their behavior, the peak of the peak wouldn't be worth it as a revenue source.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | May 25, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I think, in general, that fares which reward those who can travel off-peak or travel shorter distances are a good thing.

I worry that they will make the fare system so complicated that people will just tap their SmarTrip cards and have no idea how much they are paying...they'll just be re-loading that SmarTrip more often. That defeats the purpose of rewarding desirable travel behaviors. Honestly, most people don't calculate the cost of their trips in advance...especially occasional riders. They typically just load up money on their cards and however much it costs, it costs. That's the way I ride. When I re-load my SmarTrip, I'll do it $20 at a time..I'd never try to determine my exact fare and purchase for just one trip. Now of course in general, I know that riding off-peak is cheaper than riding during the peak, but in my mind, I think of it as "general savings", not "$0.35 savings".

Of course, I rarely ride Metro anymore...I find it much more convenient to drive to wherever I'm going. So I'm not exactly a typical commuter.

Posted by: thetan | May 25, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Peak of the peak is only ten cents??? WTF? Make it a dollar.

Posted by: seraphina21 | May 25, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for that, "thetan"

Maybe your last sentence should have been your first so I could have ignored your entire post since its not relevant.

To someone who commutes on metro, they surely know how much it costs.

Take for example an orange line rider, who doesnt work for the federal govt (which pays for their commute!! rediculous btw and they say they are underpaid, another story entirely):
current cost to foggy bottom from vienna:
$4.10 * 2 = $8.20.
If they park at vienna, add $4.5 for a $12.70 total.

That adds up to about $3,000 PER YEAR on metro alone. Im sure that person isn't quite as cavalier and they do calculate their fare.

Also, most parking garages in DC charge $9 or $10 if you get in before 8:30 am, why does anyone even ride metro from that far out? Takes longer even with DC traffic and its not reliable.

Posted by: m1ke3i6 | May 25, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Being a NYC native, I don't think that a flat fare would be applicable in the DC area. Remember, the NYC flat fare was specifically designed to spur development in the outer boroughs, especially Queens and The Bronx.

I do think that Peak of the Peak is inherently unfair, because it targets those private sector employees who cannot alter their schedules. Federal workers, whose fares are gifts from the government or who work an AWS schedule really don't care whether or not the fare goes up.

I'm still interested in seeing how weekly Metro Rail passes as well as monthly TLC passes will be affected by the new fare increases. For those who travel from far out and do not drive to a metro station, passes are already a cheaper option than using a SmarTrip, Will more people make the switch once the new fare hikes take effect? Who knows

Posted by: ms7136a | May 26, 2010 5:04 AM | Report abuse

The peak of the peak is just a gift to accounting and consulting firms who will have to decipher the fares Metro collects.

Flat fare it. Keep costs down by keeping the budget and the math simple. Flat fares and eliminate the consultants.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | May 26, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

I for one will welcome the new raise in prices, I'll finally be able to set my guilt aside and decide to drive to work.

Posted by: thedude1974 | May 26, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

From a blog about the Los Angeles Metro:

Variable Fare Pricing Right now, Metro charges a flat fare, which makes revenue forecasting simple and predictable. But transportation policy experts have long criticized flat fares as inefficient and often unfair. Metro is now following the lead of other transit agencies in thinking about moving away from flat fares. Although Metro has yet to conduct a detailed study of the idea, a motion up for vote Thursday would have staff analyze scenarios under which fares would vary based on time or distance traveled. As an example, London charges different prices for peak and off-peak transit, and New York has considered doing the same. Such an approach would encourage some commuters to travel at slower times and would recognize that transit operating costs are higher during peak hours. The Times described the New York proposal as perhaps the “biggest transportation revolution since the demise of the token.” Similarly, distance-based fares reflect the greater cost of carrying a passenger a longer distance instead of a shorter distance. Now, for instance, a rider could take the Blue Line from Metro Center in downtown Los Angeles to the Pico station, a distance of six blocks, or to downtown Long Beach, a distance of about 20 miles, and the cost would be the same. In the Bay Area, by contrast, the BART train charges greater fees to riders who travel greater distances. If a rider starts at Montgomery station in downtown San Francisco and goes just one stop over to the Embarcadero, she pays $1.75. If she instead goes all the way to suburban Walnut Creek, she has to pay $4.75. The flat-fee pricing Metro now has is straightforward, but it forces riders who travel mostly in the urban core to pay too much and to subsidize the costs of longer-distance travelers. Such free-riding raises issues of equity that could become more pronounced as Metro overhauls its transit network with the 30/10 plan and begins to capture a more affluent ridership. Given this, and the general inefficiency of flat fares, I’m encouraged that Metro is investigating new and more effective forms of pricing. All three of these forward-thinking policies would go a long way toward increasing ridership levels, ensuring a fair and efficient pricing system, reducing air pollution and easing mobility throughout the region. We’re not going to change L.A.’s car culture overnight, but sensible proposals like these are definitely a step in the right direction.

Posted by: kmm88 | May 27, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

How about stop forcing Metro to provide indirect subsidies to low income riders through low rates and instead the DC government can provide direct subsidies and metro can charge what it needs to.

The fundamental problem with Metro is the board of directors and specifically how DC chooses its WMATA representation. DC voters by and large have no say over who is elected to the WMATA board. With the veto that DC wields, no constructive conversations that make sense can occur.

Posted by: FormerMCPSStudent | May 28, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

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