VRE proposing to seek 3 percent higher fares, subsidies

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Local,Virginia,Transportation,Kytja Weir
Virginia Railway Express is proposing to raise both fares and taxpayer subsidies by 3 percent each in its next budget, even as soaring ridership has packed riders into standing-room only trains.

The commuter train service that shuttles Northern Virginia workers into D.C. jobs each weekday is facing rising costs and needs to offset forecasted cuts to its state and federal funding to cover its proposed $88.7 million budget, according to VRE spokesman Mark Roeber.

"If we want to hold the service at the same level, we have no choice," he said.

The fare hike would be the first since 2009, when the service socked riders with two rounds of increases six months apart. This time, riders would pay approximately 30 cents more on a $10.30 one-way ticket from Fredericksburg to Union Station, the most expensive trip on the service.

The hike, starting in July, would boost revenue by $3.9 million.

VRE is also seeking nearly $485,000 more from the Northern Virginia jurisdictions that fund the service for a total of $16.4 million.

But the subsidy increase wouldn't amount to 3 percent for each community served by the agency. Spotsylvania County will be contributing in full this budget cycle to gear up for the opening of a new track there in 2013, while Fairfax County's ridership has grown by nearly 180 people so it is being asked to pay more. That means others could pay less.

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VRE officials are seeking the extra money because state funding is expected to drop by $4 million, Roeber said, and some of its federal funding could fall by $1.3 million.

Meanwhile, costs are rising. The contract with Keolis, which operates the trains for VRE, calls for a 3.5 percent cost of living increase for workers. Amtrak is increasing its fee to dispatch trains into Union Station by 5 percent. The fleet contains 20 old cars that need $320,000 of maintenance and fuel costs are estimated to rise $790,000, Roeber said.

The agency is preparing for the worst with its forecast. It is assuming that Congress will let current federal transit benefits lapse down to $125 per month as of Jan. 1 instead of the current levels of $230 per month. Many riders use the benefit to cover all or part of their commuting costs, so ridership levels could drop.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kytja Weir

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner