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Hearings Set on Proposed VRE Rate Adjustments

Rail commuter Rose Robinson lives in Triangle, Va.. but takes the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) train to Springfield and transfers to the Metro for her trip to her job in Washington, D.C. She's been doing that for 5 1/2 years.

Although VRE is proposing another rate hike, Robinson considered the alternative.

"I still have to ride. I'm not taking [interstate] 95," Robinson said.

Although the Springfield VRE station is adjacent to Metro's Blue Line, Manchester Lakes resident Dave Gass prefers VRE for the ride to his job at L'Enfant Plaza.

"It's better than the Metro," Gass said. "Metro raises their prices all the time."

Beginning March 24, VRE will host a series of public hearings on a proposal to change some operations and restructure fares. Restructuring includes introducing a five-day pass, a step-up ticket for Amtrak cross honor trains, and increased expiration dates for VRE tickets. Cross honor is a term where both train systems honor tickets for travel in the same corridor. In addition, VRE is proposing to reduce the grace period for monthly tickets to half-day, and modify the discounts on existing tickets. Incorporated into the discount restructuring is a 6-percent fare increase, and VRE is looking to eliminate weekend cross honor service on select Amtrak trains.

VRE HAS PROPOSED a 20-percent discount on the five-day passes, but that doesn't cover monthly passes, which many riders, including Robinson, use.

Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) is a member of the VRE board. She participated in the decision to look at rate increases. Bulova said the increase was needed so that VRE can collect money to qualify for matching funds from a number of sources on the state and federal level. She gave some initial examples.

"It will provide $200,000 to match an $800,000 grant for homeland security from the federal government. There's an additional $200,000 match for a 'smart trip' program from federal dollars," Bulova said.

With matching funds, the rail system can buy new cars, expand parking, and meet growing operational needs, Bulova added.

"It's a fund that will create matching funds," Bulova said.

Last year, VRE ticket prices went up 4 percent, and this year's increase was initially going to be the same. But when the VRE board examined the increase, Bulova said, it determined that a greater increase was still needed.

"The system is very popular. We continue to grow at a very healthy rate," she said.

LEON HAMLIN lives in Stafford but works in Springfield. He takes the VRE into the Springfield station and a Fairfax Connector bus to his office. Hamlin said that a fare increase at some point is to be expected, but he's interested in finding out how VRE spends its money.

"I can't beat it as far as transportation up here," Hamlin said. "It looks like we're going to grow quite a bit."

Robinson has seen growth, too, at the station where she gets on. She used to have a choice of seats in the morning, but now, "You take the first one you see. By the time you get to Rippon, it's packed," she said.

Robinson does remember driving, though. It wasn't as relaxing as the VRE.

"You're not frazzled," she said.

If approved, VRE's proposed rate changes would go into effect on June 28, 2004. According to Bulova, riders will see some additions to the service before that. New cars were added to the Manassas Line in February, and the Burke Centre parking lot is expanding.

"It will provide about 500 new seats right away," Bulova said of the cars, and he added, "This summer we're adding about 80 spaces through re-striping and repaving the Burke Centre lot."