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Metrorail fares flirt with historic highs

Adjusted for inflation, Metrorail fares were at their lowest around 2000, and are now either close to or above their highest point in the 1980s. The fares typically have risen during recessions and stayed steady in good economic times.

The graph above shows the peak fares for Metrorail trips of different distances since the system's opening in 1976, including the "peak-of-the-peak" surcharge added in 2010. It also shows gas prices, and lists both fares and gas prices adjusted for inflation.

In 2010, Metrorail trips of 14 miles and above all cost the same maximum fare. Under the new proposal, Metro riders will have to pay more for miles 15 and 16, as they did before 2008. The net result is that trips longer than 14 miles will see a fairly substantial fare increase, while fares for all other distances will decline.

Although raising the maximum distance cap from 14 to 16 miles will probably prove unpopular among longer distance Metrorail commuters, opening the Silver Line to Dulles may require Metro to reevaluate the maximum distance cap again in the future.

Fares appear to follow a clear trend of increasing in times of economic hardship and decreasing when the economy is stronger. Today's historically high fares should come as little surprise given the severity of the current economic slump. Metrorail riders feeling the pain of these prices may have to wait for a stronger economic recovery to take hold before they can expect any lasting relief.

Sources for this article included WMATA: History of Fare Increases, Metrorail 1976-2010 (PDF); WMATA: Proposed FY2013 Fare Adjustments, Proposed FY2013 Capital Improvement
Program, and Federal FY2012 Grant Applications
(PDF); U.S. Energy Information Administration: Motor Gasoline Retail Prices, U.S. City Average, 1976-1990 (PDF); and U.S. Energy Information Administration: Weekly U.S. Regular All Formulations Retail Gasoline Prices, 1990-2012.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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What an awesome comparison! nice work.

But to complete the job, you need to convert gas cost to cost of driving, which I believe is hovering around (IRS business cost of $0.555/mile), and also include the cost of parking.

Thanks again!

by goldfish on Mar 26, 2012 10:31 am • linkreport

Um, no. The IRS figure includes depreciation. It is a number derived for tax purposes, and not the "cost" of driving.

Maybe it was too much drinking this weekend, but I'm trying to get a handle of transit fares and inflation? Are they included? Indexing gas prices to inflation also sometimes seems silly - given that it doesn't include energy -- but everyone does it.

Glad to hear the metro fare out ot dulles will be in the $10 range.

by charlie on Mar 26, 2012 11:00 am • linkreport

Charlie, since the metro fares include depreciation, why not include it for driving? the point is to compare the cost of the two different modes of getting around.

by goldfish on Mar 26, 2012 11:06 am • linkreport

Because depreciation is assumed.

If I remember the IRS rules, you could try to take depreication on your vehicle. It would be an individual case on each one, so the IRS threw up its hands and said 55 cents a mile for business purposes.

But to assume that is an actual cost -- your looking at a different set up numbers.

I'd agree that gasoline price vs. transit fares is also an incomplete matchup. I'm sure people who now pay for pakign at metro stations would agree.

by charlie on Mar 26, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

Very nice work! It's always good to put prices into perspective using historical inflation.

by Phil LaCombe on Mar 26, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

You could use the AAA cost of driving, which is right around the IRS' number anyway.

Why would you not include depreciation? I have to buy a car in order to drive it to work. It's a depreciating asset - eventually I will have to buy a new one. If using transit can let you get rid of a car then you have saved that depreciation cost.

Why is indexing gas prices to inflation silly? How would you adjust gas prices to reflect changes in the value of a dollar then?

by MLD on Mar 26, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

Yeah, MLD, I get sick of the "but depreciation is invalid!" trope as well. Charlie is not the only one on that bandwagon. I'd take your point further, if transit use lets you *use a car less,* then you've *reduced* the depreciation cost associated with owning a car. Stepping away from some of the other benefits to owning a newer (in years) car (like higher fuel efficiency, greater safety features, fewer emissions, and the all-important "cool/successful/keeping up with the jonses" factor), the fewer miles you drive a car in each fixed period, the more fixed periods it will last.

Depreciation is imperfect, of course. Certain systems start to break down in a car after a while, regardless of how many miles are on the car. Eventually, most people throw their hands up in frustration and just buy a new car, even though maintaining the old one would *still* probably save them money. But it's a better approximation to depreciate a car by the number of miles driven than to just take a stab at an annual cost of buying a new car. The "expiration date" of a car (which is actually very long, my car was a total of 7 years old when I got rid of it, my neighbor who I carpool with a lot drives a 12 year old car, both ran/run fine because of low mileage) is less of a factor for most Americans than the "expiration miles" (which is around 100,000 miles unless you're a car geek that wants to get yourself featured in a Chevy commercial for keeping your truck running 300,000 miles or something).

by Ms. D on Mar 26, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

The blue book values for used cars generally are impacted by cumulative mileage, IIUC. Is blue book wrong?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Mar 26, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

I rode BART a couple of weeks back, SFO - Downtown Berkeley. It cost me (outside of rush hour) $8.65! This made me wonder how much an equivalent trip would cost on Metrorail. Branch Avenue to Shady Grove: $2.65. Seems to me like metrorail is unbelievably cheap for long distances.

by renegade09 on Mar 26, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

@Ms D: Cars last a lot longer now than you realize. The average car on the road in the US is 10 years old, and lots of people not only drive cars for 200,000 miles, they expect them to last that long.

by jimble on Mar 26, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Metrorail fares are INSANELY high -- for the level of service provided, you get way less than you get even in London (perhaps the capital of the world) with an unlimited 'travelcard' (that also includes use of the city's exhaustive, well-resourced bus network). And, yes, I am taking the £1.58 exchange rate into account, and, no, I don't think the existence of the congestion charge is what leads to this difference -- most congestion charging money went into expanding the bus system, particularly night buses.

by James on Mar 26, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport


Exactly the point. BART is a true regional transit system whereas WMATA is more of a hybrid commuter rail/urban subway, so we need to balance the costs of operating both. Last time I was in SF, I took BART from the airport but had a $27 week-long MUNI pass for everything else (buses, streetcars, MUNI subway) and it worked great.

by Adam L on Mar 26, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport


I just read that you went from SFO, where there is a special charge. Other trips on BART aren't that expensive, but the other regional rail trips around the country certainly are. Take the MTA Metro North in New York. To go from White Plains to midtown Manhattan is about the same distance as Rockville to downtown DC, yet in New York that trip costs $10 each way.

by Adam L on Mar 26, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

To go from White Plains to midtown Manhattan is about the same distance as Rockville to downtown DC, yet in New York that trip costs $10 each way.

I calculate it as 26.5 miles from White Plains to grand central and 18.4 miles from Rockville metro to Farragut Square.

Also, you can't compare the comfort of an MTA train to a metro train. MTA trains are more like Amtrak, with bathrooms, roomy seats, electric outlets, etc.

by Falls Church on Mar 26, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

Very good point about the SFO surcharge. If I had gone from San Bruno instead (next stop in), the fare would be $4.50, which is still much more than the $2.75 an equivalent trip would cost on metrorail. I'd say you could add $2 to those long-distance fares and they still wouldn't be outrageous compared to equivalent systems elsewhere in the US.

The London travelcard is a good deal. WMATA passes are pretty crappy. However, it's worth remembering that on the London underground, paper fares *start* at $6.50, which is significantly higher than the *maximum* on metrorail! (+ London underground is far from perfect!)

by renegade09 on Mar 26, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

Great work on the chart. Interesting how fares have declined in real dollars, even though inflation has not been that bad and that fares have held steady.

@renegade09 "I rode BART a couple of weeks back, SFO - Downtown Berkeley. It cost me (outside of rush hour) $8.65! This made me wonder how much an equivalent trip would cost on Metrorail. Branch Avenue to Shady Grove: $2.65. Seems to me like metrorail is unbelievably cheap for long distances."

Branch Ave to Shady Grove doesn't pass under an enormous natural deep harbor. But, does BART account for this and assess a hidden "toll" for passengers on this segment? I don't know and it would be interesting to find out.

@James "Metrorail fares are INSANELY high -- for the level of service provided, you get way less than you get even in London (perhaps the capital of the world) with an unlimited 'travelcard' (that also includes use of the city's exhaustive, well-resourced bus network)."

Metrorail fares may be "high" but it's your shouted "insanely" I quibble with. (Are you channeling Crazy Eddie?) What does the London travelcard cover that a Smartcard doesn't? SmartCards cover the local bus systems here. The out-of-pocket dollar value may be hard to take, but imagine the same thing happening with your car, if you had to directly feed it money to run every time you used it.

Ultimately it may be an apples/oranges comparison given the automotive culture here in the states. Londoners are accustomed to commuting by bus even from the distant suburbs, a network that we just don't have here. If there were a similar history of that, then subsidies would have kept up, and the bus network would be much more dense.

by Jack Love on Mar 26, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

Wouldn't it make more sense to adjust Metro fares for inflation? This was something that happened in NYC (albeit easier with a flat rate), but it showed that a trip was actually cheaper now due to infation since WWII. Now that effect won't be as prominent in DC, but it's still notable. For example, a $1 fare in 1976, the system's opening, is now $3.79.

by Phil on Mar 26, 2012 1:29 pm • linkreport

If we restrict ourselves to the US, I've found that Metro offers a pretty good value compared to other transit systems.

Our trains are more comfortable than most subways, and fares to the far-flung stations are an absolute steal compared to commuter rail lines in other cities (to say nothing of offering much more frequent service).

BART always struck me as a crummy compromise between a traditional subway and commuter rail system. BART's most obvious drawback is the lack of capacity in downtown SF, which severely limits headways on the branch lines outside of the city. Metro's "intangibles" also make it a much more pleasant system to commute on. Our stations are significantly nicer, we've done a better job of maintaining our trains, and our higher percentage of aboveground track makes long trips a bit more interesting.

Metro's planners also wisely chose to build a fairly "traditional" railroad, contrary to the overarching mentality of the era. BART's stuck with the burden of running one of the only Indian-Gauge railroads outside of India, for god knows what reason...

by andrew on Mar 26, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

Jimble, it appears that the DOT estimates that the average *life expectancy* of a passenger vehicle is just over 13 years, or 145,000 miles. I have some qualms with this number given the drivers we're discussing here (business people and suburban professionals, who I *don't* think drive their cars into the ground before they consider them "worthless"). But for argument's sake, I'll take the DOT car life expectancy. It works out to about $.207 of the total per-mile deduction the IRS gives for an average-priced new car (straight depreciation, assumption made because each mile gets the same deduction). Another $.115 is gas (based on $3.90/gallon and NHSTA average new passenger car fuel efficiency for 2011). The other $.23 (which works out to $2797/year for someone driving 12K miles) seems only kind of high to me as costs for insurance, maintenance, parking, tolls, etc. The IRS number passes the sniff test for me, particularly when you also consider numbers from other sources come close.

by Ms. D on Mar 26, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport


Edited that and lost some sources/assumptions...

Average new car price $28400, National Automobile Dealers Association. Backed by a report in the Detroit Free Press giving a slightly higher number. 3-year loan, 3% interest (I checked Chevy and Toyota's "deals" on their websites), 10% down payment (included in price paid, but deducted before calculating interest). Didn't put in all the other fees, they're far too numerous for my quick-and-dirty. So if anything, I'm low-balling the cost of a new car.

by Ms. D on Mar 26, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

@MsD; the average value -- as placed by Arlington assessors -- on cars in Arlington was in the $6000 range.

But I'd agree with your math -- real costs are in the 20-30 cent per mile range.

Just as a personal data point, the largest expenses on my car are parking (at home), insurance, repairs, then gas. Trying to allocate out the repairs expense is almost impossible, but there really is little relationship between that and miles driven. (i.e. a short 1 mile trip in DC is actually far far worse than a 300 mile highway trip). Parking at home is a constant cost, and insurance is also a constant -- I pay them whether I drive 1000 miles or 10,000 miles.

by charlie on Mar 26, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

now that the comment period is over, is metro going to continue the peak of the peak fare or abandon it? i went from souther avenue to silver spring this AM and it cost $5.25.

by lilkunta on Mar 26, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

@lilkunta: That's up to the board, who will decide in June.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 26, 2012 4:07 pm • linkreport

OK folks now that the depreciation has been discussed, what about commuter parking? That probably costs just as much as the per mile cost of driving, and is a major reason people take the metro. Anybody got a handle on that?

by goldfish on Mar 27, 2012 8:28 am • linkreport


It depends a lot on where you work obviously. But downtown, with a monthly parking pass parking costs at least $10 a workday.

Honestly it is really impossible to roll an "average" commute cost by car. People just complain about how it doesn't apply to them - see also the depreciation discussion here!

Honestly for the people who live way out at the end of the line and have to drive and park at Metro, Metro costs are probably not that much less than driving costs.

That's why lots of agencies have a savings calculator:

by MLD on Mar 27, 2012 8:56 am • linkreport

@MLD: I had a look around and found tools like commuting cost calculator, but I came to realize that parking cost is too variable to be meaningful. For example, parking is free for some but really expensive for others, even if the locations are close.

I think parking is the primary reason people take Metro (or not).

by goldfish on Mar 27, 2012 9:09 am • linkreport

Parking is probably a big reason because it is a big part of the cost of driving. But a lot of people who ride rail nationwide say they ride because it's less stressful or more enjoyable than sitting in traffic in their car. I can't find any of the Metro surveys that ask this however. Hopefully the new one they're doing soon will include this question.

by MLD on Mar 27, 2012 10:05 am • linkreport

Should have mentioned that the inflation figures I used were from BLS for CPI-U.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 27, 2012 10:16 am • linkreport

@MLD; yep, sorry to be a pain.

I suspcct the majority of people parking DOWNTOWN aren't paying for their parking -- their employer is.

(then again, a majority of people riding MetroRail aren't paying for it either)

I'd agree that parking is a better number to track -- although much harder to get data -- than gas or depreciation.

You've got to also look at the cost of parking at WMATA lots.

In terms of the experience, there are a lot of miserable rail riders. They complain about it constanly. And there are a lot of miserable car commuters, but at least you have our own space, music and climate control. I do agree that the average car driver is screaming more....

by charlie on Mar 27, 2012 10:16 am • linkreport

@MLD -- when I drive somewhere downtown, a lot of the stress is tied to parking. Such as, I'm late and I can't find a @$&% parking space nearby, so I will use one of the exorbitantly expensive garages. [expletives deleted].

The trade-off is that the metro usually takes far longer, even with the parking hassle. So it is always time vs. $.

by goldfish on Mar 27, 2012 10:17 am • linkreport

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