Photo by FutUndBeidl on Flickr.

WMATA staff presented to a plan to raise bus and rail fares to the agency’s board yesterday. For riders taking both bus and rail, the proposed increase will hit them doubly hard.

The proposed budget increases rail fares by about 3% (the rush hour base fare increases from $2.10 to $2.15) and by 15¢ on bus (from $1.60 to $1.75 for SmarTrip, which will now be the same as the cash fare).

The 50¢ transfer discount will remain the same, as it has for many years. As the rail and bus fares increase, the transfer discount is becoming a smaller part of the fare system.

The transfer started out as a paper ticket you got at a Metrorail station and showed to your bus driver to get a 90¢ discount on the bus fare. Unlike transfers from one bus to another, which allowed a free ride, the rail-to-bus transfer discount was not enough to cover the whole bus fare.

Once WMATA moved bus transfers to SmarTrip, it removed the transfer machines from stations, and you got the transfer discount automatically. The 90¢ discount from rail to bus became a 50¢ discount in both directions.

Since then, bus and rail fares have continued to increase, but the transfer discount has stayed the same. This is unlike other transit agencies, who for the most part either give a free transfer between vehicles, or set a transfer fee (the cost to ride rail after bus or bus after rail) rather than a discount off the base fare for both.

Systems with a transfer fee is periodically review and increase that fee as necessary, because the agency gets more money when this happens. For WMATA, however, it is financially beneficial to overlook increasing the transfer discount, even as both rail and bus fares have increased.

The transfer fee is an important part of the Metro fare system, which takes into account the high cost of riding both rail and bus. It encourages people to take the bus to Metro, rather than drive, congest the roads, and use up a parking space. It’s an acknowledgement that we can’t build the rail system everywhere, but we can build a transit system using multiple modes that can reach a lot more people at a reasonable cost.

WMATA should at the very least establish a policy that when the base rail and base bus fares both rise, the transfer discount should rise by the same amount. This will ensure the customer only sees one fare increase rather than both fare increases at the same time, and would help promote using rail and bus as an integrated system.

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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.