Residents will have a chance next week to tell local and regional transit officials what they think about proposed Metro fare increases.

In a proposal released Wednesday, Feb. 12, Metro Chief Executive Officer Richard White announced that half of an estimated $48 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2004, which begins July 1, could be made up with spending cuts. But the remaining $24 million needed to keep the transit system on track will come from Metro’s estimated 1.2 million daily passengers.

The basic Metrorail fare could go up to $1.40, and the maximum rail fare at rush hour could increase by 60 cents. Metrobus basic fares could go up to $1.30, with the maximum. Currently, basic fares for Metrobus and rail are $1.10. Parking charges could increase as well, which could mean an extra $1 for daily parking and $30 for monthly reserved parking.

Metro officials say they predict fare increases would have minimal effects on ridership.

But even if the increases scare off a few riders, Metro won’t be hurting for passengers – only for revenue. At a meeting in the District Wednesday, Feb. 12, Jim Graham said peak ridership in many stations is already approaching capacity. Graham is a DC Council member and succeeds Arlington board chair Chris Zimmerman as Metro board chair this year.

Some experts predict the region’s population could grow by about a million in the next 20 years. With some Metro stations already nearing capacity, that spells disaster for transit unless significant changes are made. “It’s going to be like a combination of Mexico City and Tokyo,” said Graham.

Despite possible overcrowding in the future, fare increases aren’t designed to scare away riders, said Peter Shapiro, Chair of the Prince George’s County Council and the Transportation Planning Board. “It is about money,” he said.

Each local government that contributes to Metro’s operating budget feels that they already bear an unfair burden, Shapiro said, and federal funding for transit projects could be scarce in the current economic climate. The money has to come from somewhere, he said, and right now riders themselves are the likely source.

Metro has already accepted delivery of 96 new railcars this year and expects a complete fleet of 192 cars to be in operation before the summer. But it’s not enough, officials say.

Despite budget problems, Metro won’t be cutting service any time soon.

In fact, Graham said at the Feb. 12 meeting that he will push for extended Metrorail hours to begin next year. Graham was instrumental in pushing for cars to run till 2 a.m. on weekends. Now he wants weekend service extended another hour, and morning service to begin at 5 a.m. rather than 5:30.

With increased fares, the additional running time would be manageable, Graham said, although he acknowledged changes would have to be made in how tracks are serviced and maintained during non-running hours.

Changing Metro’s fundamental philosophy is essential to keeping up with changing times, Graham said. Residents could find parking policies a likely target of those changes.

Metro currently maintains about 56,000 parking spaces, more than any agency in the region except the federal government. And parking rates have remained low over the years, originally envisioned as a way to increase ridership.

In today’s climate of overcrowded trains, there’s no longer a need to encourage ridership with subsidized parking, Graham said. Not only does it add to overcrowding on the rails, but it increases road traffic by encouraging people to drive rather than take buses to rail stops.

Despite Graham’s criticism of subsidized parking, Metro officials plan to add 1000 parking spaces to the Franconia-Springfield stop on the Blue Line, and over 1500 spaces to the Shady Grove stop on the Red Line, next year, while also awarding a contract for construction of a new garage at East Falls Church.

Residents will have the opportunity to address parking concerns as well as fare increases at a public forum Monday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the County Board Room, 3rd floor, 2100 Clarendon Blvd.