When George Billmyer first moved to the Washington area, he found that this was not the place for train enthusiasts.
"I came here in '63 on military duty, and my God, in '63 there was no Metro. A couple commuter trains from Baltimore and two or three from Brunswick, that was it," said Billmyer, the son and grandson of New York railroad workers.
Now Billmyer lives about two miles from the Rolling Road station of the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a system he has used since it opened in the 1980s. Last Tuesday, he rode downtown and encountered a different problem: He couldn't find a place to sit.
BILLMYER'S COMPLAINT is becoming increasingly common on the VRE. As people move to affordable homes farther and farther away from downtown, the suburban rail system is under growing pressure to deliver more and more people downtown. Ridership on VRE has grown 18 percent each year for the past three years, according to the system's public affairs manager, Mark Roeber.
"We're having a number of trains where people are standing from Union Station," said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), who chairs the VRE Board. "There's quite a bit of increase in residential housing to our west, but also congestion is as bad as it's ever been, and a lot of people are trying to avoid the Mixing Bowl while it's under construction. We've been marketing VRE as an alternative."
To cope with the growth, VRE officials are considering implementing a 6-percent fare increase. If approved by the VRE Board and its parent agency, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the increase would take effect next July 1. The transit agency will conduct public hearings in March. The increase would provide $960,000 for the system.
Roeber said the system can't cut costs in order to offset a fare increase.
"Costs are really cut to the bare bone," he said. "There's no frills, there's no fancy expenditures. We try to give a very premium service at the lowest possible cost that we can afford to provide."
Last October, VRE's chief operating officer, Peter Sklannik, resigned after board members questioned some expenses for which he was reimbursed, including a cell phone used for personal calls, meal expenses that didn't appear to have any business purpose, invoices for personal items, and using a car service instead of a VRE vehicle.
BULOVA SAID most riders would not be affected by the fare increase because they work for the federal government, which offers its employees Metro checks to take transit.
"I don't think it's going to have a big impact on people," said Billmyer.
A ticket from the Burke Center station to Union Station currently costs $5.15.
At the same time, Congress is considering legislation that would almost double the Metro-check subsidy.
Most of the fare increase will be used to cover rising track costs, said Bulova. VRE leases its track from commercial lines and from Amtrak, which charge more money every year.
Bulova said VRE also needs to increase capacity.
"Ten out of 24 of the stations are at or over capacity," she said. "The Burke Center VRE station in my Braddock District is a perfect example."
"You've got a minimum backlog of about 6,000 people who can't ride the system because of the capacity," said Billmyer.
Bulova said the agency was replacing some of its cars with cars from the Chicago Transit Authority, which it purchased for $1. The Chicago cars are older than the current ones but have more seats.
"What we have to do is some refurbishing of our own," she said. "It's still a pretty good deal for us."
The system is also considering eliminating service on Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, and federal holidays, when ridership is much lower than usual. The VRE Board is also studying the possibility of selling advertising in stations, and cracking down on fare evaders.