Thursday, December 14, 2006

Metro's Fare Increase & Incentive Package: A Good Start

Judging by the hysterical reaction on DCist, you'd think Metro was proposing to extract a pound of flesh at each faregate. But I'm going to make the radical argument that the transit agency's plan to increase some fares and create new rider incentives seems not just reasonable, but overdue.

Metro faces two major problems, one financial, and one social. While the causes are beyond the reach of 15 cent fare hikes and such, this package seeks to address the effects of both.

There is only one major transit system in the country that lacks a dedicated government revenue stream. There is only one major transit system in the country that serves three states/districts in very similar proportions. Metro.

This year, Congress, DC, Maryland, and Virginia came closer than ever to agreeing on a dedicated funding source, but
Virginia Republicans killed the deal. Lacking that funding source, fare hikes are Metro's quickest way to balance its budget is to raise fares. It's not necessarily the easiest, as the public backlash shows, but that Metro is willing to take that heat shows how tight its budget is.

More radical are the financial incentives for commuters to avoid riding during peak hours (5-9:30am or 3-7pm). I do agree with critics who say commuters are at the mercy of their bosses, and that the fare incentives target the thousands of ants marching and not The Man who decides when they work. But the suggested fare incentives are a nudge, not a shove, and hopefully employers and the federal government will take notice.

The overcrowding issues on both Metro and our region's roads are frequently and wrongly labeled as capacity problems. They're not. Metro is half-empty for 18 hours a day, as are all but the most congested local roads like I66 or the Beltway.

The traffic is a result of a social problem -- every employer asking all of their workers to come in at the same time, then telling all of their workers to leave at the same time. As a result, we make extremely inefficient use of our transportation systems.

Aside from high-tech companies, both private employers and government agencies have resisted telecommuting, and individual commuters are left to arrange their own lives around a reverse commute or fight their bosses to let them work a 7-3pm or 11-7pm shift. I pitched something similar to my boss once and was quickly shot down with, "I need you here when I'm here." Nice to know I'm wanted, but what am I, her favorite teddy bear?

It's sad that it's fallen to Metro to try to address decades of short-sighted choices, shirked responsibilies, and failed leadership. But as DC's growth continues, commuters are going to have to let go of the idea that one lane of highway or one rail car should be exclusively theirs to zip straight to work at their chosen time.

And before you accuse me of being a Metro apologist, don't forget Festivus came early this year when I aired my grievances against the system back in July.

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