Fare hikes and dedicated revenue
THANKS TO Metro’s new general manager, Washington area bus and train riders won’t have to pay more to get into work anytime soon. But the issue of increasing fares still looms.
Late last year, Metro’s staff drew up a proposal to raise fares to fill a budget deficit. Instead of a uniform increase, Metro planned to charge higher fares for those who ride during peak hours or use the busiest stations. But Metro’s general manager, John B. Catoe Jr., recently threw out the plan, instead proposing to fix a budget shortfall with layoffs and other savings. And when fare increases are necessary, he said, they should not hit some riders much harder than others.
We hope Mr. Catoe can balance Metro’s budget without increasing fares and without sacrificing safety or reliability. Encouragingly, he insists that common-sense cuts at Metro will save money and have no effect on the service. One hundred employees, for example, will be cut from the agency’s construction unit — now unneeded because Metro is no longer engaged in large building projects. If Mr. Catoe is right, Metro’s staff should have offered such a plan months ago instead of endorsing new user fees. Still, he must remain careful as he fires employees. Aging trains and tracks have led to all too common service interruptions; the system cannot afford cuts that would worsen maintenance issues.
Metro will still have to raise fares sometime. Mr. Catoe wants to institute a system of regular fare increases linked to the cost of living. The reliability of such a schedule is appealing. Riders will be able to anticipate well ahead of time when and by how much their transportation budgets will have to increase. Nevertheless, Metro should not totally abandon its last fare-hike proposal. Though flawed in the details, its basic logic is sound: Metro should still consider greater incentives to take the train during off-peak times to alleviate crowding and strain on the system. Mr. Catoe says that the idea is good in principle and unpopular in practice. But jammed rush-hour trains are also unpopular.
Raising fares alone will not solve Metro’s budget problems. Metro regularly finds itself begging for money from local governments because it lacks a dedicated stream of public funding — and therefore relies much more on fares than do other public transportation networks its size. In anticipation of a federal bill that would give Metro $1.5 billion over 10 years for much-needed improvements on the condition that local governments match it with dedicated funds, the District has pledged such funding, and the Virginia General Assembly authorized a dedicated revenue source last week. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley supports devoting money to Metro as well.
Congress must keep up its part of the bargain. The Senate failed to act on the proposal in its last session after the House approved it. The House should repass the bill soon, and the Senate should support it this time around.