Despite repeated warnings by its own staff and others, including The Washington Examiner, that raising Metro fares would be counterproductive, the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority board went ahead and did it anyway in April. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles insisted that the fare increase would bring in $55.5 million in new revenue, which was necessary to close a budget gap and pay for ongoing maintenance.
But according to Metro's latest ridership figures, those dire warnings turned out to be true. Ridership in the first quarter of FY 2013, which began in July, was "significantly lower" than the Metro forecast, which anticipated a 1 percent drop in rail ridership and a 1.3 percent drop in bus passengers. The actual 2 percent decline was more than double what Metro had been expecting, resulting in a net loss of $5 million during the first quarter alone. And almost all of the lost revenue -- $4.1 million -- was on the Metrorail system.
Coming just two years after Metro imposed the largest fare increase in its 36-year history, introducing a 20-cent "peak of the peak" surcharge to an already ridiculously complicated fare system with 44,376 different possibilities, the April fare hike was particularly ill-timed. Although Metro eliminated "peak of the peak" pricing, it raised the cost of taking transit everywhere else even though ridership had still not returned to its pre-2009 Red Line crash levels.
That mistake was compounded by the end of stimulus-inflated transit benefits used by two out of every three Metrorail riders, which were reduced from a maximum of $230 a month to $125 on Jan. 1 while parking benefits remained at $240 a month. The combination was enough to convince thousands of disgruntled former Metro riders to brave the second-worst traffic in the nation rather than pay more for shoddy service.
If basic common sense did not inform Metro board members that raising fares while the system was becoming more unsafe and unreliable was a bad idea, they should have listened to riders who showed up to protest at six public hearings in February and March. Or Fairfax Supervisor Jeff McKay, their former colleague on the board, who called the April fare hike "a double whammy for people who live in suburban areas" because they bore the largest brunt of the fare hikes, paying 15 percent during peak travel times and 27 percent during off-peak periods.
They can't say they weren't warned.