Photo by afagen on Flickr.

Metro is looking at a $120 million shortfall for the fiscal year starting next July. At the finance committee meeting on Thursday, Metro provided some ideas for raising about half of that money through fares.

In addition to traditional fare increases, Metro has also developed some innovative proposals. These new ideas take into account the recently approved fare policy principles.

Adjusting bus fares

The first idea would be to adjust Smartrip bus fares according to general inflation for the past two years, and increase cash bus fares to make them even dollars. The new Smartrip bus fare would be $1.60, and the new regular, express and airport fares would be $2, $4 and $6. This proposal would raise about $9.2 million and might reduce ridership by 1.2 million riders per year, about 1% of total trips. This is the only proposal for adjusting bus fares.

Raising rail fares

There were two fairly standard increases proposed for Metrorail fares. The first is a fairly familiar increase where peak fares increase by the rate of inflation, which would be about 10 cents for the base fare and increases in the distance-based fares. The new maximum fare for peak of the peak with a paper farecard would be $6, up from $5.45 today.

As part of this option, Metro is proposing increasing off-peak fares by about 50%, setting them to 75% of the equivalent peak fare instead of the current three-tier system. This option would raise about $57 million and might reduce ridership by about 3 million trips per year, about 1.3%.

Another option for adjusting rail fares would be to increase only the off-peak fares. In this option, the off-peak fare would increase to 90% of the peak rail fare, and the peak fares would be kept the same.

Some board members expressed some concern that by reducing the difference in fares, customers would no longer be driven by price to avoid the busiest peak times. One board member pointed out that the revenue increases might be reduced by the cost increase of increased congestion during peak times.

Another drawback with this option is that it eliminates the long-standing Metro policy of selling less crowded off-peak service at a discount in an effort to spur ridership and promote transit use even when the roads are not as crowded. This option would raise about $48 million and might reduce ridership by 1.6 million trips per year.

Parking fees

Metro addressed parking fees by proposing an across-the-board $0.25 increase, as well as demand-based adjustments to reserved parking permit fees. For lots that have low usage, Metro would reduce the reserved permit fee. For high usage lots, Metro would be allowed to increase the number of reserved permits from about 15% of spaces to about 30% of spaces. Part of this option would be to reduce the fee for bicycle lockers to $120 based on low demand for lockers. This option estimates $3.4 million in revenue and 100,000 lost riders.

Two-zone farecard system

The last option is the most interesting, and is the largest change from existing policy. The peak of the peak fare would be eliminated, though it’s not clear whether this means a 20 cent reduction in peak of peak fares, or a 20 cent increase in peak fares.

Possible core zone. Image from WMATA.

For paper farecards, the existing time-based and three-tier distance based fare would be replaced with a simplified and expensive two zone system, where riders would pay $3 for trips within a central zone and all other trips would be $6. It’s not clear whether trips completely outside the zone would also be $6, which would be strange for some short trips like East Falls Church to Clarendon.

Board Members Jeff McKay of Fairfax County and Mary Hynes of Arlington voiced some apprehension about this plan, pointing out that many visitors to the area stay in hotels just outside of the central zone boundary, and especially that Arlington would likely oppose a plan where almost all Arlington riders would pay $6 with a paper farecard for trips that are about $2 today.

The fare ideas kick off a process that will see an official proposal by the General Manager in January. The next step will be the board’s decision to send fare increase proposals to public hearings in the Spring. Final approval of a fare increase would probably come in late June.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.