Friday, September 24, 2010

Is It Fair to Increase Peak-Time Metro Charges?

Photo courtesy of
 When WMATA recently rolled out their "peak-of-the-peak" fare increases, metro riders were universally outraged. According to Metro Board Chair Peter Benjamin, these increases would help close Metro's $189M budget deficit without the Transit Authority having to reduce or cut service. Personally, I agree with this Greater Greater Washington post, that sometimes service cuts are necessary and useful for culling superfluous bus lines, and would have preferred to see WMATA at least consider making some route and schedule alterations.

But this posting from Human Transit brings up an interesting point that I had not considered...peak-usage fare increases may be justifiable if the operational costs during these peak hours are significantly higher than non-peak hours. In other words, a universal flat fare would result in the non-peak users essentially subsidizing those who use metro during the peak hours. Raising fares only during peak hours means that only those people using the metro during those more expensive times pay for the increased operational costs. As Human Transit argues, we may consider this result positive from a social justice standpoint...people travelling to work at 8:30 in the morning are more likely to be salaried, higher income earners while the mid-day ridership more likely consists of lower-wage hourly workers. On average, yes you will see these wage discrepancies, but it's not a universal truth...what about people with hourly jobs requiring them to be in at 9am? While I don't entirely agree with this rationale, it is still an interesting point to consider.

So what exactly makes peak-operation hours so much more expensive? Well, as Human Transit explains, the driver unions don't do Metro any favors here--train and bus operators must be paid for a minimum number of hours work, even though they're not normally needed for the full shift. So immediately, there's an inefficiency. Of course, the more train cars and buses in operation, the more maintenance is needed. And another point I'd never considered, it's extremely cost inefficient to drive buses and trains back on the reverse route, considering most commuter traffic is flowing in one direction--towards the center of the city.

The Transport Politic offers a different opinion on peak-of-the-peak surcharges, which tends to echo my initial reaction to the fare increase. To summarize...DC's metro system is essentially a commuter rail system. It was designed that spokes to a hub. The city center is where jobs are, so of course metro should be aware of this traffic pattern and price it's offerings accordingly so that it can operate as needed when increased demand necessitates it. Specifically, Transportation Politic asks, "Why penalize the people who are using the system in exactly the way that the system was designed to work?"

It's a contentious issue, for sure...I for one plan on skipping metro altogether and taking the bus.

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