My Idea to Bridge the Metro Budget Gap

With all the hubbub over possible massive fare increases on the Metro, I feel like I should throw my two cents in. After all, without a car, public transit is my primary method of non-pedestrian transportation. Such fare hikes would certainly affect me.

DCist has a rambling writeup on the issue. Feel free to read it or not - I’ve quoted the relevant portions of it here, re-ordered and with my comments.

Metro’s general plan could be summed up as charging for congestion. The goal is to spread demand over the system more evenly, and recoup the costs of congestion from those who most contribute to it.

Forgive the cliché, but the new Metro plan fails to see the Big Picture. The proposed budget makes perfect sense if Metro were a private entity intended to turn a profit. After all, if you increase the prices when demand is high, then you will spread the demand to less utilized resources, and maximize your profit. DCist says it a bit more eloquently.

However, the flaw in this thinking is that the market of Metro riders is elastic. Riders get off at downtown stations during rush hour because that’s where they need to be when they need to be there. With limited off-peak hours, few commuters would be able to take advantage of lower fares.

That is to say, this plan won’t decrease congestion, and instead penalizes the very people we should be encouraging to take the metro. We do not want their cars on the road!

Like any transit system, Metro is not designed to make a profit. […] As we have pointed out in the past, Metro provides a benefit not just to riders, but to non-riders in the form of less pollution, less traffic, and a transportation option for workers without cars who nonetheless contribute significantly to the regional economy.

As others have pointed out, Metro’s current budget shortfall is due to the fact that it is virtually the only major transit system in the country without a dedicated source of funding. While D.C. has passed a measure to guarantee $50 million a year to Metro over 10 years, Maryland and especially Virginia have been so far unwilling to do the same. This keeps Metro from getting the $1.5 billion that Virginia Rep. Tom Davis has lined up in Congress that is conditional on dedicated local funding. As a result, Metro has to plow scarce operating revenues into expensive capital investments like new rail cars, helping to create the current budget crisis, and no doubt more in the future.

Ay, there’s the rub. The problem is that two of the three jurisdictions that benefit greatly from Metro - namely Maryland and Virginia - refuse to grant it any public funds for subsidy. It’s basically the commuter tax problem. The District has agreed to cough up regular funds, but everybody else is freeloading.

Since the budget is directly related to the lack of permanent funding, I think the new fare proposals should only penalize riders who live in those jurisdictions. Metro should modify the SmartTrip system to record the jurisdiction of the purchaser, and then charge higher fares to those who live in areas which do not publicly subsidize Metro. After all, those of us in DC are already paying higher fares because our tax dollars are spent on the Metro!