Photo by cacaphony76.

Do WMATA fare hike and service cut proposals put a disproportionate burden on low income and minority populations? 

WMATA General Manager John Catoe has proposed an FY11 budget that includes $89.2 million in fare increases and $33.7 million in rail and bus service reductions. 

In a 2007 survey, WMATA found that Metrorail passengers had a median income of $102,000, were 75% white and only 1 in 50 did not own an automobile.  In contrast, Metrobus passengers had a median income of $69,600, were 50% minority and one in five did not own an automobile. 

The FY11 proposed budget contains fare hikes averaging a little over 15% for Metrorail passengers and has a target of $15.4 million in actual service reductions.  In contrast, Metrobus fares are proposed to rise over 20% with service reductions of $18.3 million.  These proposed bus service reductions translate to about 3.5% of Metrobus service compared to rail reductions of about 2%.

A closer look at the proposed bus service reductions finds that the African-American majority jurisdictions, the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County, comprise $5.7 million of the proposed bus “subsidy savings.”  In contrast, Montgomery County and Virginia comprise only $3.8 million of the “subsidy savings.”  (The budget refers to the net saving from a proposal, including the predicted loss of ridership, as “subsidy savings,” though it’s not directly related to any jurisdiction’s subsidy.)

The rest (bus stop changes, holiday schedule changes, late night service reductions and several routes that cross county lines in Maryland can’t be easily broken down by county.  However, even among these, the District leads with $2.6 million in subsidy reductions, followed by Maryland at $2 million and Virginia at about 0.9 million.  These cuts roughly parallel the percentages of bus service in each jurisdiction.

Proponents argue that everyone must share in the pain and that bus service subsidies are much higher than rail subsidies so a greater percentage of bus service reductions and higher fare increases are justified.  They argue that previous bus fare increases lagged rail fare increases.  They further argue that since WMATA is composed of individual jurisdictions, the pain of bus service reductions should be spread evenly among those who pay the subsidies.

Opponents argue that Metrobus service costs less than Metrorail, runs more revenue miles and that it is subsidized at a higher rate because Metrorail service has replaced almost all the most productive bus routes.  They further argue that you have to look at Metro as a single system and that the steps taken last year to provide two way fare discounts for transferring to rail and bus are a step in the right direction where this proposal is a step in the wrong direction.  They say it’s unfair to ask less well off riders to pay bigger fare increases and suffer more service reductions than the well-to-do and that it is particularly bad to ask in a recession.

Regardless of the merits of each position, it seems clear that low income, minority and the transit dependent will take a bigger hit if these proposals are implemented than wealthier, white transit riders who own autos.

Craig Simpson is currently working as a representative for Progressive Maryland.  He has in the past worked for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO.  He has a degree in Labor Studies from the National Labor College.