Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.

At the March 8 hearing on WMATA’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget, Arlington County Board member and former WMATA Board representative Chris Zimmerman argued that more governments, like the state of Virginia and the federal government, need to contribute to Metro’s operations.

He also encouraged the Board not to make the fare increase disproportionately hurt shorter distance riders and to consider a system of flexible unlimited passes.

Below is his testimony.

Good evening, Members of the Metro Board and Mr. Sarles:

Those of you on the Board continue to face difficult choices; the constrained fiscal situation in which Metro is forced to operate has not changed.  The agency is inadequately supported by member jurisdictions, especially at the state level, and receives meager support from the federal government.

Almost alone among transit agencies in the United States, you have no dedicated revenue sources, and you are subordinate to, and dependent upon, multiple jurisdictions across state lines. In recent years, the situation has been complicated further by the increased role in governance by the federal government and by the state of Virginia, neither of which contribute to the formula by which the daily operations of the system are funded.

The system is aging, its maintenance needs are growing — and still, the region looks for you to expand service. So, I appreciate the difficult choice the Board will have to make, and recognize that a fare increase may be unavoidable this year. 

No one wants to raise fares.  I used to say that raising fares is the next-to-the-last thing the transit agency should do. What’s worse is cutting service or maintenance. That you must not do. 

As one who has sat where you sit, and who will have to vote on your final budget as part of his jurisdiction’s part in the approval process, here are my recommendations:

1. Don’t put it all on the riders; don’t let governments off the hook. Ask compact jurisdictions to accept some of the responsibility to meet the need.  Press for greater support from the state: Now that they have imposed themselves on the governance of WMATA, displacing local representation, they should be expected to help Metro close its budget gap.

The same can be said for the feds. They vote on the budget. They depend heavily on the system on a daily basis for the delivery of their work force, no less than they depend on the delivery of electricity and water to their buildings. The system is substantially designed around the needs of the operations of the federal government. They should be contributing to the operating costs of the agency as a routine matter. The WMATA Board should press for inclusion of the federal government in the funding formula.

2. In structuring a fare increase, I urge you to consider the following:

  1. Don’t make it too big; consider possible effect on choice riders (especially in view of adverse federal benefit changes). It obviously won’t help anything if we push riders back into their cars.
  2. Consider effects on those least able to pay.  As you well appreciate, there are many people in this county, and throughout the region, for whom transit is not a choice, but a necessity. For them, a fare increase is simply a reduction in the limited disposable income with which to pay their costs of housing, food, clothing, and medical care.
  3. Don’t punish the folks who take the shortest trips. Those who accept higher housing costs to live near their work, and to live a transit-oriented lifestyle, are providing a benefit to everyone in the region. Increasingly, they find it difficult to get on to trains that enter their stations already full, and they seldom get to sit down. Theirs is the least-subsidized ride. They should not bear a disproportionate share of the cost.

And finally,

  1. Do something for the riders. They bear a larger portion of operating cost here than in perhaps any metropolitan area in the country. They’re still going to be asked to put up with delays and service interruptions, even though they’ll pay more. Press Metro management to find ways — even small things — to make life a little better for your regular customers.One good possibility that has been suggested is improving passes.
    1. We need a good monthly pass; not just a 28-day that is simply four times the 7-day pass.
    2. It’s got to be useful for people who ride in the core of the system — that is, short-trip riders. 
    3. It’s got to be on SmarTrip.
    4. It should be a “flexible pass”, one that lets riders choose their typical level of fare (which depends on their typical trip length) and select a pass that’s works at that level. (Seattle, London and Minneapolis have done this; it is ideal for a system like Metro in which fares are distance-based.)

I thank you for considering these suggestions, and for your service to Metro and the region.

Chris Zimmerman is a member of the Arlington County Board, and a former voting member of the WMATA Board of Directors for 13 years. He serves on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, Virginia Railway Express Operations Board, the Transportation Planning Board for the National Capital Region, and more. He was also the first local official to guest post on Greater Greater Washington.