Advocates question Metro's elimination of peak-of-peak surcharge

Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metro riders no longer will have to pay the 20-cent "peak of the peak" surcharge during the busiest commuting times even though they will be paying higher fares starting July 1.

But some think Metro is reversing the intent of its previous policies and scrapping the fee too soon.

"I don't think we've given it enough time," said Jeff McKay, a Fairfax County supervisor who was on the Metro board that approved the surcharge in 2010. "I still believe in it. ... It's the way of the future to make people spread their commutes out more."

Metro started charging the peak-of-the-peak fare in 2010 during the busiest 90 minutes of the morning and evening commutes, hoping to move some riders to less-crowded -- and costly -- times.

By April 2011, about seven months later, the agency said the extra cost was not shifting rider behavior. Only about 3 percent of trips had moved to less-packed times.

Metro officials said commuters are not as price-sensitive as expected -- and not as flexible about when they can start and finish their workdays. An online survey of 3,652 people showed riders favored scrapping the fee 57 percent to 43 percent.

The board decided last week it was worth losing an estimated $16 million in extra fare revenue because the fee did not change rider behavior and merely complicated an already complex fare system.

At the same time, though, the board opted to raise the maximum off-peak fares by 27 percent, much higher than other rail fares, which are rising an average of about 5 percent.

That essentially flattens Metro's fare structure, said David Alpert, founder of the Greater Greater Washington blog and recent member of Metro's Riders' Advisory Council. Metro is giving riders less incentive to ride during the less-busy times, when the system is already moving trains, Alpert said.

"They are going in the opposite direction on fare policy than they did two years ago," he said.

Alpert was among a group of transit advocates who suggested the peak-of-the-peak option. But he said the 90-minute window Metro created was wider than what advocates envisioned, perhaps making it harder for riders to shift their trips.

However, one key variable has changed: Riders now pay a bigger share of the cost of their trips. Transit benefits dropped from a maximum $230 per month to $125 on Jan. 1. An estimated 40 percent of rush-hour riders are federal workers who receive transit benefits from the government. They aren't as price-sensitive because it isn't their cash.

But Metro doesn't think the loss of transit benefits would have changed how riders felt about the peak-of-the-peak surcharge. "If there was going to be any impact, the people who are paying out of pocket would be altering their transit plans, but we haven't seen that," spokesman Dan Stessel said.

And, as Alpert notes, it might be fairer to lose the surcharge because fewer people can afford it without the benefit.

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