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Possibility of Higher Fares Prompts Complaints

Residents react to proposed fare increases, first in eight years.

Jandi Kim had a promise for Chris Zimmerman Monday night: raise Metro fares, and Arlington will see a lot more of her taillights. “If it goes up, you will see me with my SUV on Route 50 or 66,” she said.

Kim lives in Herndon and commutes three hours each day to and from her District office, near the Farragut West Metro. Despite having to pay $160 each month in bus and rail fares, she uses Metro to avoid sitting in traffic.

But driving would be faster and cheaper, she said. If Zimmerman and the rest of Metro’s board of directors decide to raise fares, she’ll be taking to the road.

Kim joined nearly two dozen other residents and commuters in the County Board room at 7:30 for a public hearing Monday, Feb. 24, the first of nine public hearings on Metro’s proposed fare increases, and the only forum that will be held in Arlington.

More than a dozen spoke, most criticizing plans to make up a $48 million budget shortfall by increasing fares, plans released by Richard White, Metro chief executive officer.

Those plans could increase the basic Metrorail fare by as much as 30 cents, to $1.40, and maximum fare at rush hour could increase to $3.85. Basic Metrobus fares could go up to $1.30. 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. This is the first proposed increase for riders since 1995.

Metro’s spending will reach about $900 million in fiscal 2004, said Rick Stevens at Monday’s hearing, and revenues won’t measure up without some changes. Stevens, Director of Metro’s Business Planning and Development office, said that Metro’s board of directors, five representatives from the counties served by Metro, will need to pick and choose from the list of proposed fare increases by the beginning of July to make up the difference.

ZIMMERMAN STRESSED that none of Metro’s board members has taken a position on any fare increases yet. He said that he would look for any possible way to avoid rate hikes. Stable fares have been a major factor in Metro’s success over the past five years, he said, and increases will be a last-resort for maintaining service.

Zimmerman’s first choice for balancing the budget would be to increase the contributions of local governments, but he admitted such a proposal is just wishful thinking. “I wish I could say that there’s a chance for that,” he said.

With property values going up by thousands of dollars this year, Arlington has extra cash to contribute. But Zimmerman said other local jurisdictions don’t have that luxury. “We all go together,” he said, so local governments won’t be footing any more of the bill next year.

But local resident Jeff Fogel said Metro counties have a problem with priorities, not with cash flow. “The local governments could stop wasting money on so many things that don’t address basic needs,” he said.

Separate bus lines like the county’s ART system take money away from Metro, Fogel said, and in return only provide elected officials with local programs that look good but don’t work.

Even within Metro’s own budget, frivolous expenses take away from vital services, he said. For instance, new signs alerting riders when the next bus or train will arrive are expensive and rarely work properly.

Zimmerman countered by pointing out that Metro is indeed cutting costs, to the tune of $24 million next year. The cuts will come mostly from layoffs of about 200 white-collar jobs, from the ranks of Metro’s middle management.

SOME RIDERS SAY they have no option but to ride Metro, and fare increases would just take advantage of the most loyal riders.

Mariam Halstead has worked for the county parks and recreation department for two years to put herself through school at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus, just a short bus ride from her home on South Highland Street.

Despite frequent late and no-show buses that force her to walk in unsafe conditions or take expensive cab rides, she remains a loyal Metro rider because she cannot afford a car. “I’m dependent on the Metro system,” she said.

Costs of weekly Metro Flashpasses are automatically deducted from her paycheck each month, so fare increases would cut into her take-home pay before she ever sees the money.

Still, Halstead said, Metro is cheaper than the alternative. Cab rides between school and home are about 10 times more expensive than the bus, she said.

CHEAPER DOESN’T MEAN better though, some residents said. Doris Ray represents the Endependence Center of Northern Virginia, Inc., an Arlington-based group that helps people with disabilities live on their own.

Public transportation serves a vital role in the lives of people with disabilities, she said, and late or no-show buses, like those mentioned by Halstead, can’t be overlooked in any discussion of proposed rate hikes.

“We recommend that before increasing the fares, you fix the system,” she said. “We want to pay our fair share, but not for a broken system.”

Accessibility to buses and trains, long an issue for Metro riders with disabilities, continues to be the major issue, as Ray and others said that Metro’s facilities do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

PARKING COSTS proved to be one of the few increases supported by some residents, although others disagreed with the usefulness of de-subsidizing Metro’s 56,000 parking spaces.

Allen Muchnick, a board member of smart-growth activist group Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities, said proposed parking rate hikes don’t go far enough. He proposed doubling the increases, which would raise an additional $8.8 million in fiscal 2004. Cheap parking at Metro stations only encourages people to drive rather than walk, bike or take buses, he said.

But Ken Reid, who commutes from Leesburg, said inexpensive parking is vital to ridership and keeps commuters from driving all the way to the District.

RATE INCREASES would also put an unfair burden on local senior citizens, said Roberta Timberlake, a representative of the Arlington County Commission on Aging.

“This would have a major adverse impact” on the elderly, who are some of the most loyal riders and who can least afford fare increases, said Timberlake.

Retired residents, who are on fixed income, could be hit hard by fare increases, but some see the proposed hikes as broader abuse at the hands of Metro’s board of directors.

“Mostly I see them as a tax on the poor,” said Arlingtonian James Brown. He said he simply doesn’t have the money to afford more expensive transit.

Fogel agreed: Fares essentially amount to taxes. Metro board members were counting on revenue from the sales tax referendum defeated in November, Fogel said, and now they’re looking for a way to get that money anyway.

By voting down the referendum, voters were telling elected officials they didn’t want more taxes, he said. If Metro officials pass these rate hikes they could face voters’ ire during reelection bids.