Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Metro can help riders, make its revenue more predictable, and encourage people to ride transit with a system of flexible passes. At a meeting Thursday, some board members will be pushing the agency give this idea a serious look.

In many cities, frequent transit riders don’t pay for every ride; they buy a monthly or weekly ticket and then think of transit as free. It’s a good system and one that many people, including Michael Perkins in multiple articles for Greater Greater Washington, have been asking Metro to set up here.

I spoke with Mary Hynes, Arlington’s representative on the WMATA Board, about the concept, which she supports.

Why are passes a good idea?

The basic idea of a pass is that a rider pays for a ticket whose price is close to the cost of taking one round-trip ride each weekday. That covers basic commuting, but then riders also get additional transit trips for free.

This is great for riders because extra mid-day trips on top of basic commuting don’t cost more. But it’s also good for the transit agency. Off-peak, the trains and buses aren’t full, so it’s not really costing more to transport someone at those times. While the agency loses out on revenue from those trips, it’s likely to make some more through attracting riders.

Hynes thinks this could help encourage riders who’ve started abandoning Metro to give it another try. “We need to find a way to give riders a way to come back,” she said. “The flex pass has that built into it, since you’re buying a certain amount of service and then can ride for free.

Another big advantage to flex passes is that they would make the revenue more predictable, as the costs of running transit wouldn’t change based on how many people are riding. This problem comes up some years and causes a sudden loss of revenue. For example, when the government shut down in 2011, Metro lost about $250,000 a day.

That would be far less if most federal workers were using a pass. The same goes for snowstorms and other unexpected disruptions. Riders might save a little money on normal months and pay a little extra (or, if they work for the government, the government might pay a little extra) in shutdowns and snowstorms, but this evens out everyone’s costs.

Mobile phones, streaming video like Netflix, and many other services work the same way. You pay for your voice and data plan, not per minute. On average, it works out, but what you pay and what the phone company receives are more predictable.

Hynes said, “It’s a win for the region because passes actually begin to maximize the use of the existing routes, and a win for the agency because it adds revenue predictability.”

How would passes work?

Metro has some passes today. As Michael Perkins explained in 2010, when passes first started integrating with SmarTrip cards, the bus pass is fairly popular but the rail passes are less so.

A big reason is Metro’s fares, which vary by distance. That means one pass at one price would either be a huge steal for long-distance riders or outrageously expensive for short-distance ones. Metro has two passes now, a full pass that gives unlimited rides anywhere, and a “short rail” pass that’s only good for short trips. But most people don’t use either of these.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In the Seattle area, they have many transit agencies with many fares, but one single pass, the Puget Pass.

The way this pass works is actually quite simple. Riders say what their regular commute is, and the system computes the regular fare. Then, it calculates a pass based on that fare which costs 36 times the one-way fare. With that pass, the rider can then take all trips of that price or less for free. If the rider takes a longer trip, he or she just pays the extra out of the cash balance on their ORCA card, the equivalent of our SmarTrip.

(If you thought to yourself, “Why not just have a flat fare?” you’re asking something many new board members also ask. Here’s a detailed explanation of why a flat fare is a bad idea. While some cities, like New York, do have a flat fare, Metro is very different; many trips on Metro would use commuter railroads in New York, which don’t have a flat fare either. And we handle transfers differently too.)

Michael Perkins computed a detailed proposal for how to implement passes on Metro based on a few simple principles. He suggested a system like Puget Pass, plus a special “Just Add Bus” rate to add a bus pass onto a flexible rail pass.

What’s the holdup?

At a recent meeting of the WMATA Board’s finance committee, interim General Manager Jack Requa said that the agency was looking at this as part of the current budget cycle, Hynes said. The current budget proposal, however, remains vague on passes.

The agency should study, and pilot, a flexible pass system like what Perkins recommended. If they need the board’s encouragement, members ought to ask about and push for this idea at the Thursday meeting where they will discuss the budget.

At least a few members of the board, including Hynes, have expressed interest in doing just that. She said, “I’ve been talking to other board members about it. I feel very strongly that is the fair way to do something equitably across the region. I want to see if [WMATA] can do a trial.”

“If it’s revenue positive, or even a tiny bit negative, we ought to do it,” she added. “We ought to say to the riding public, ‘We get it.’”

This is a good idea. This year’s budget is an ideal time to set up this system, when Metro needs to find ways to bring riders back. This would be a terrific initiative for new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who’s looking for quick ways, just like this, where he can make the experience better for riders and entice them to give Metro another try.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.