Photo by aaron13251 on Flickr.

At a finance committee meeting on Thursday, WMATA board members approved putting “a monthly pass” on the docket, without providing much detail. Metro now has an opportunity to provide a needed and valuable monthly pass, or they can hinder the process by creating a pass nobody wants.

During the meeting, discussion about various passes showed differences of opinion about what a monthly pass would be good for. Metro has proposed getting rid of the all-day rail pass, stating that the pass is not popular. Similarly, Metro cited lack of interest when they proposed discontinuing the short rail pass.

Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal pointed to the SmarTrip card as one reason that riders wouldn’t need a pass. She stated that since SmarTrip holders don’t typically know the balance on the card, and don’t always know what trips will cost them, customers wouldn’t benefit from a monthly pass where additional trips are free.

Kissal also compared Metro to London’s Tube, which has passes available in daily, weekly, monthly, and annual time periods. According to Kissal, the Tube gets a lot of tourists, while Metro has a larger proportion of commuters. She stated that there might be a place for passes but it might not be for the majority of riders.

As we have advocated before on Greater Greater Washington, the best “audience” for passes in the Metro fare system is front and center: daily peak commuters.

In our view, customers who pay for their regular, daily commute should get the rest of their trips included on a monthly pass. This is similar to many transit agencies around the country, including Portland’s TriMet, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, Chicago’s CTA, and San Francisco’s MUNI. Metro’s time and distance based fares complicate the issue, but an innovation in Puget Sound makes monthly passes possible even with a variable fare system.

For most transit agencies, a monthly pass is typically a multiple of the single ride price. This multiple is usually around 38—40, which is the number of trips people typically take in a month to commute to a regular office job. Since most transit systems have only one adult fare, there is often only one monthly pass.

Metro’s system has many possible fares. If Metro sold only one monthly pass that was valid for any trip, the price of the pass must be high enough to prevent a lot of revenue lost when people switch to passes from per-ride payment.

With Metro’s proposed maximum fare of $5.75, this would make a monthly unlimited pass about $230 per month. However, most people spend far less than this per month and take much shorter trips, so a $230 pass would not be a sensible option for them. If Metro sold a monthly unlimited pass for only $150, a lot of revenue would be lost from commuters who are normally paying more than that today.

Puget Sound’s innovative solution was to sell passes at varying prices via the PugetPass (Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Metro Transit also has a flexible pass option). Logically, more expensive passes would be valid for more expensive trips, and less expensive passes would be valid for less expensive trips. Customers could choose a pass based on their typical trip and pay a reasonable amount for a month’s worth of transit.

WMATA’s finance committee has requested that the proposed public docket for board approval include a monthly pass. What kind of pass Metro offers will have a huge impact on how popular the pass is. If Metro only offers a $230 unlimited pass, few people outside of long-distance commuters will be interested. The unpopular pass will be discontinued, and the idea of monthly passes will be branded a failure.

Instead, Metro should offer a monthly pass good for unlimited short trips. For $120 a month, Metro could offer unlimited trips of $3 or less. Trips that cost more than $3 would be discounted so that you only pay the difference automatically from your SmarTrip balance.

When they requested a monthly pass option, board members cited various reasons for the request. Many pointed out that off-peak rail service has become full of delays and disruptions, and asking customers to pay more for poorer service didn’t appeal to them.

Some pointed out that customers would like to chain their trips, performing errands such as shopping or picking up dry cleaning along the way. Others stated that customers might go out to eat at night or on weekends, and having a pass might entice them to take transit instead of drive. All of these uses would be met with a pass where the additional free trips are significantly cheaper than the maximum distance peak fare.

This pass would be an excellent start to a monthly pass system which offers a pass at every fare level. After a medium-value pass proves its worth to customers, Metro could start offering short trip passes for customers that live near the center of the city, and longer passes for customers that live further away and therefore take longer trips on average.

Eventually, a range of passes would be available, and all regular Metro riders could choose the pass that best suits them without being a big revenue loss for Metro.

Metro should take this opportunity to introduce a monthly pass that makes sense and prove that it’s a good idea for our region.

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.