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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 05/26/2010

Metro isn't the NYC subway, Part 2

By David Alpert

A Sunday editorial in The Post says that Metrorail fares are subsidizing Metrobus fares. It points out that in places such as New York, people pay $2 or more for a bus ride, compared with $1.25 for a SmarTrip bus ride here.

It's true that bus fares are very low, and as my colleague Michael Perkins has pointed out, they haven't kept pace with inflation. Perkins said that a fare increase to $1.50 would bring bus fares back in line with inflation, and sure enough, that's what Metro plans to do. But the Post says, "It's not enough to bring Metrobus in line with other major transit networks."

However, saying that New Yorkers pay $2.25 for a bus ride only tells half the story. New Yorkers also get to ride the bus for free if they also ride the train. That's because the $2.25 fare in New York includes a free transfer. Many riders take a bus to the subway, and, here, many people take the bus to Metrorail as well.

Metro still charges the train fare plus a bus fare as well, with only a 50 cent credit for the transfer. Therefore, while a rider who only uses the bus only pays $1.25 (soon to be $1.50), a rider who rides the bus to a train can pay far more.

The average National Harbor worker pays $8.30 round trip, according to Unite Here Local 25, in many cases to take a bus to the Green Line to the NH-1 bus to work. In New York, such a large hotel would probably be on top of a subway station, and that round trip for a resident of the city would only cost $4.50. Actually, it would be a lot less, because almost all New Yorkers also buy unlimited passes, which can yield significant savings.

Anthony Giancola, an alternate WMATA board member from D.C., suggested increasing the transfer discount to 75 cents from the current 50 cents. Coupled with the 25-cent bus fare hike, that would keep bus rides constant for transferring riders but increase it for bus-only riders.

If fares have to rise, it makes sense to raise bus fares, but if they rise more than rail fares and become a little more New York-like, then the transfer discount should rise to also become more New York-like. Unfortunately, the s proposal didn't go anywhere.

The Post makes a valid point, which former Metro general manager David Gunn also made in his report to the board, that it's not sustainable to put all fare increases on rail indefinitely just because rail riders are richer on average. However, any serious discussion of bus vs. rail fares must consider those who ride both. In New York, bus riders who transfer to rail pay nothing for their bus ride (or their rail ride, whichever you count). That isn't leading to criticism that the rail system is "subsidizing" the buses.

In recent debates, Fairfax alternate WMATA board member Jeff McKay insisted that it would be unfair to his constituents for parking fees to rise at the same time rail fares rise. But he lacked similar outrage on behalf of residents who ride the bus to the rail system, even suggesting that a higher transfer cost could pay for lower parking fees.

We can think of parking and buses as a "car to rail" transfer and a "bus to rail" transfer. Both feed the rail system. In both cases, Metro is subsidizing the feeder systems -- car- and bus-based -- more than it's subsidizing the trains. But it's all part of a regional system, where each piece is connected to the others. The fares and costs for one aren't independent of each other, here or in New York.

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By David Alpert  | May 26, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Metro, transportation  
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We should look for ways to decrease the price of metro relative to the alternatives, which means increasing parking taxes or collecting tolls on high-congestion roads and bridges. I'm surprised parking downtown is as cheap as it is, raising parking taxes an additional $1-2 per car per day in certain high-use zip codes (DC and NOVA) will make mass transit more appealing to marginal commuters that could be induced to using metro instead. Use the tax receipts as revenue sources for metro, plus the increased ridership, and you can avoid the fare increase.

Posted by: drdc1 | May 26, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

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