Photo by BlindMadDog on Flickr.

Metrobus pass holders currently enjoy free rides on all the regional bus transit providers, from DASH to Ride-On, Connector to “The Bus.”  Right now, WMATA does not share any pass revenue with those transit agencies.

This has become a sore point with Arlington’s Chris Zimmerman, County Board Member and a member of the WMATA Board of Directors. At a recent committee meeting of the WMATA Board, he said,

The local providers have been honoring Metro’s pass and not getting the revenue back that they’re owed on the trip taken on their service ... We’re having local providers say, “Look, I can’t afford this any more.”  I’m having to look at cutting service because of increasing cost of running Metro anyway, and now we’re losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

According to Zimmerman, the regional operators agreed to honor the passes “more than a decade ago” under the belief that the paper flash passes would quickly switch to SmarTrip, allowing Metro to track the numbers of rides on each service and work out a revenue sharing deal. However, the passes on SmarTrip took far longer than expected, and now that passes are finally going on SmarTrip a decade later, the regional providers want that revenue agreement.

Under the Arlington County Board’s recently approved transit fares, if a regional revenue sharing agreement cannot be reached, the County Transit system could withdraw from the regional bus pass and would issue a bus pass of its own.  Combined with recent county efforts to replace Metrobus service with ART service, this degrades the value of a Metrobus flash pass, and hurts our regionally integrated transit system.

Board members Peter Benjamin from Maryland and Jim Graham from DC confirmed that those jurisdictions are interested in getting a share of pass revenue for the rides that are provided on local systems.  Benjamin stated that the result would be “changing the subsidy level from local to Metro.”

While it’s true that this is all government money anyway, and any changes would be just payments from one government-subsidized transit system to another, the important thing is the amount of those transfers.  Right now, the local governments provide service and get nothing from pass users.  But a well-designed revenue sharing system would transfer revenues in a way that’s related to how much service people are using, so a jurisdiction that provides service that a lot of riders are using would get a much larger transfer of revenue than one that doesn’t provide much service.

Clearly, it would be preferable to maintain our region’s interoperable passes, so some sort of revenue sharing needs to be devised.  Tomorrow, I’ll discuss some options and my recommended plan.

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.