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WMATA plans bus and rail fare increases, and double increases for those who transfer

WMATA staff presented to a plan to raise bus and rail fares to the agency's board yesterday. For riders taking both bus and rail, the proposed increase will hit them doubly hard.

Photo by FutUndBeidl on Flickr.

The proposed budget increases rail fares by about 3% (the rush hour base fare increases from $2.10 to $2.15) and by 15¢ on bus (from $1.60 to $1.75 for SmarTrip, which will now be the same as the cash fare).

The 50¢ transfer discount will remain the same, as it has for many years. As the rail and bus fares increase, the transfer discount is becoming a smaller part of the fare system.

The transfer started out as a paper ticket you got at a Metrorail station and showed to your bus driver to get a 90¢ discount on the bus fare. Unlike transfers from one bus to another, which allowed a free ride, the rail-to-bus transfer discount was not enough to cover the whole bus fare.

Once WMATA moved bus transfers to SmarTrip, it removed the transfer machines from stations, and you got the transfer discount automatically. The 90¢ discount from rail to bus became a 50¢ discount in both directions.

Since then, bus and rail fares have continued to increase, but the transfer discount has stayed the same. This is unlike other transit agencies, who for the most part either give a free transfer between vehicles, or set a transfer fee (the cost to ride rail after bus or bus after rail) rather than a discount off the base fare for both.

Systems with a transfer fee is periodically review and increase that fee as necessary, because the agency gets more money when this happens. For WMATA, however, it is financially beneficial to overlook increasing the transfer discount, even as both rail and bus fares have increased.

The transfer fee is an important part of the Metro fare system, which takes into account the high cost of riding both rail and bus. It encourages people to take the bus to Metro, rather than drive, congest the roads, and use up a parking space. It's an acknowledgement that we can't build the rail system everywhere, but we can build a transit system using multiple modes that can reach a lot more people at a reasonable cost.

WMATA should at the very least establish a policy that when the base rail and base bus fares both rise, the transfer discount should rise by the same amount. This will ensure the customer only sees one fare increase rather than both fare increases at the same time, and would help promote using rail and bus as an integrated system.

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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reason #1001 to ride a bike (at least occassionally) and not let transportation mismanagers bank on public dependence on mediocre services

by @ShawingtonTimes on Feb 28, 2014 10:10 am • linkreport

Raise the bus fare, leave rail fare the same. Rail has been supporting bus at too great a level for too long. I don't think increasing bus fares a quarter really means the end of the world, and if it does then we have far greater problems in our region in terms of income equality that should be addressed through economic programs not via our transit systems.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 10:16 am • linkreport

2013 Metro bus Operating cost $535.7M vs revenue $156.8M
FB recover of a pawltry 29% even including advertising

2013 Metro rail operating cost $886.2M vs revenue $688.5M
FB recovery of 77.7% (despite continue fare pressure, sequester, and govt shutdown)

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 10:24 am • linkreport

What about the Circulator?

While I understand distance-based fares are hard to do on buses, short distance routes for city dwellers to go a number of blocks should be very low. The current $1 fare is perfect and makes the Circulator popular.

by Tom Coumaris on Feb 28, 2014 10:36 am • linkreport

The increase in bus fare to match the cash and Smartrip fares is a bad idea because it removes the disincentive to use cash. It should result in more lag and delays as it becomes less important to keep smartrip cards loaded.

by JPC on Feb 28, 2014 10:39 am • linkreport

Why would they raise the SmarTrip bus fare but not the cash fare? It's like the left hand doesn't talk to the right hand.

by MLD on Feb 28, 2014 10:41 am • linkreport

WMATA determined that they have high smartrip usage on buses anyway (probably because convenience and free transfers) and the people that use cash were slowing the buses down by loading one ride's worth on the smartrip card at a time. If they're not going to load more than one trip worth on the card, just do away with the discount.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 28, 2014 10:45 am • linkreport

What about the Circulator?

Circulator is run by DDOT, not WMATA, so the WMATA fare changes don't affect it.

by MLD on Feb 28, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

@MLD, I believe Fairfax Connector basically mimics what WMATA charges though, you sure DDOT wont do the same with circulator?

I havent heard yet if FFX Connector will increase their fares in line, though I think they should. Better recovery means an ability to provide better more frequent and reliable service.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 10:51 am • linkreport

I agree, Metrorail has been the gravy "train" for Metrobus forever, and it has to stop.

I get that Metro looks at the demographics of rail riders (median income of $102K per year).

Metrobus rider median income is 70K a year, which is hardly destitute. All DC students also get to ride Metrobus for free (and get unlimited rail rides for $30 a month), and ultra low income DC residents are eligible for additional transit subsidys as well through DC-DHS.

For comparisons sake, the median income of LA County Bus riders is 24K. The Median income of NY MTA Bus rider is 55K a year.

WMATA also knows that ~42% of its entire ridership recieves an employer fare subsidy and so is sheltered from paying the full freight anyway.

Relying on rail fares to make up the difference for bus and metro access has gone on about 2 decades too long. DC bus riders aren't the destitute low income folks advertised.

by Arkie on Feb 28, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

WMATA and transit agencies across the country need to start thinking about creating fare discounts for low-income riders. Some agencies already have this, where you provide some documentation and get a special card that gives you a discount (like the senior smartrip). Then you have more freedom to raise the bus fares to something where you can capture a bit more revenue.

by MLD on Feb 28, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

@MLD, agreed, but WMATA should not be doing it is where I disagree.

For better transparency, and for better tracking this should be a service at the jurisdictional level. DC, MD, and VA individually should be addressing this with assistance programs for low income riders; which as you said will allow bus and rail fares to adequately be priced, which btw provides new opportunities to reinvest that revenue into better bus systems and better rail systems.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

@Michael Perkins

That is a valid point. However, I think removing the discount further encourages cash use. If people load single trips onto the SmartTrip then WMATA should raise the fare slightly on both SmartTrip and Cash and bring back the discount so that loads $20+ onto the card get a discount. Make that revenue neutral, but provide incentives for efficient behavior. There, it costs me more money if a user loads each ride, they will be incentivized to load less often. There used to be a discount or bonus for loading (was it $20+?).

by GP Steve on Feb 28, 2014 11:41 am • linkreport

@MLD, I strongly agree. Any recipient of SNAP, TANF, WIC, or Medicaid (etc) should automatically become eligible for the Reduced Fare SmartTrip which seniors and those with disabilities already qualify for.

by dcmike on Feb 28, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

I have no idea why people believe that bus riders should pay more for inferior service. It takes twice as long to go half as far on a bus yet riders will pay the same as the non-rush base fare on Metro. Not all modes of transportation are equal and fares should reflect that.

by Adam L on Feb 28, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

@Adam L, maybe if the fares were higher the service could be better

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 12:58 pm • linkreport

With the federal government encouraging, or at least allowing, more people to telework, and with companies encouraging/allowing telework, don't you think the ridership may decrease in the coming years. To make up for that lost revenue, won't there have to be ever-increasing fares. I've lived in this city for a while, and have been coming to the city and area my whole life, and I can remember when it was barely over $1 to ride the subway. Of course back then, the maintenance was non-existent as well, the way Metro tells it.

It seems like to me the fare increases have been more frequent and larger the last few years. We really need to have an unlimited monthly pass for a set amount of dollars. I think that would help people with commuting costs. Between bus and train, people could be paying, what, $13 a day if you are far out, if you're not paying that already. And any extra trip is just adding onto that. Then if you drive to a stop and park, you have to pay that as well. At that point, you might as well just drive all the way into town and pay for a monthly parking space.

by Nickyp on Feb 28, 2014 12:59 pm • linkreport


And non-rush metro rail is useless, inferior service as well. Heck, if we are being honest, rush hour rail service is usually inferior, so I am not sure of your point.

Rail fares have increased far faster, and in greater percentages than bus has for decades, mostly because folks like the Graham-stander kept beating people over the head with "think of the destitute poor people who ride the bus". Well, your average bus rider is far from destitute and can start shouldering more of the farebox recovery.

To have one inferior mode recovering more than 70% of its cost via fares, and another less than half that is ridiculous. That, or metro needs to fix the fare machines on the buses. A solid ~20% of the time I ride, the fare machine is broken and the driver waves everyone past.

by Arkie on Feb 28, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport


The problem isn't necessarily operations but capital expenditures to get larger buses and bus depots, install dedicated lanes, and improve light timing, etc. Neither rail nor bus fares go towards capital improvements.

by Adam L on Feb 28, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

BTW, look through my words and point out where I said it should equal rail. I hate when people take an argument and exaggerate it to the extreme, its not useful, it doesn't solve problems, and it insists that only the opinion you have can be correct.

I point out the statistics. It would likely mean a healthier system if bus fares more accurately tracked with increases in alternative forms of transportation. Or we can keep them artificially low which has done nothing to increase ridership (thats cool too), I just wish Virginia would stop paying for it.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 1:05 pm • linkreport

@Adam, I am all for more capital expenditure, but when it comes to bus you are incorrect. Improved service can mean more frequent bus and extended hour bus.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 1:06 pm • linkreport

*Sorry edit, and those are operational costs/ operational expenditures and issues.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 1:06 pm • linkreport


There are many bus routes in DC that I'm sure recover far more revenue than their expenditures. The problem is WMATA provides fare recovery data for Metrobus as a whole, including routes in Maryland and Virginia as well as local routes that are directly subsidized by the District (and therefore do not subtract from WMATA's overall general funds).

As for Metro's service reliability and farebox maintenance, you're not going to hear any defense from me. But that doesn't mean that we should stick it to riders.

by Adam L on Feb 28, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport


In my experience, they only thing that could improve service on Metrobus would be to eliminate the cars blocking the way.

by Adam L on Feb 28, 2014 1:16 pm • linkreport

That is not my experience, if that is your only issue you should count yourself lucky. My issue is bus service ending before rail service does, and extremely infrequent buses in off peak hours, both of which I would happily pay double regular fares if it meant they could be resolved considering my only alternative is a far more expensive cab.

When you artificially keep fares low, keep in mind it is making it more difficult for me to get a bus to get home at night.

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 1:24 pm • linkreport

Navid/Arkie -- rail doesn't really support bus the way you think. How much bus service "costs" beyond farebox revenue is paid out of the funding/subsidies provided by the jurisdictions.

So that means DC student "free riders" are paid for out of a separate program by DDOT.

Adam L. -- I agree that bus service generally is of lower quality compared to subway and is deserving of a discount compared to rail.

MP -- I agree that the transfer discount is too low. Most other systems have free transfer between modes for card holders, although some might charge a transfer fee first for all modes

MLD/dcmike -- I agree with Navid that there should be a low income discount, but covered by the jurisdictions. SF MUNI has such a program using criteria suggested by dcmike. I don't know how hard it is to administer. Then again, DDOT does what it does for the student transit pass so an infrastructure is there, at least for DC.

by Richard L. Layman on Feb 28, 2014 1:25 pm • linkreport

Putting in a low-income discount is a horrible idea.

I'm pretty sure there are zero bus lines in DC that have greater than a 100% recovery. The airport lines used to be profitable but WMATA is now claiming that isn't so.

The irony is there are plenty of buses that probably make money when the run full. But then they have to return empty.

Again, not to simplfy things too much, but planners have a tendency to keep expanding bus lines and what suffers is service quality. Trying to run buses over old streetcar lines in DC hasn't helped either.

by charlie on Feb 28, 2014 2:08 pm • linkreport


Sure it does..

"How much bus service "costs" beyond farebox revenue is paid out of the funding/subsidies provided by the jurisdictions."

And jurisdictions would be paying a lot more if rail fares had been kept lower, and produced less at the farebox .
As it stands, the contributing jurisdictions pay less to support their overall WMATA contribution because rail is recovering ~70% of its operational expense through fares.

Bus riders need to start ponying up.

by Arkie on Feb 28, 2014 2:11 pm • linkreport

Rail is also more capital intensive but generally somewhat cheaper on a per capita basis to operate. Even if you spent all the operational funding for buses on rail it would still quickly run out before you could get the same level of coverage. The bus subsidy is about 400 million a year. That would get you a new silver line every 15 years or so ignoring the increased operational rail subsidy need for more service. As pointed out almost all the metrobus subsidy is regional.

by BTA on Feb 28, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

Is rail more capital intensive when you consider the full life cycle, honest question, has someone calculated equivalent bus coverage for 50 years vs rail on a per rider mile basis (assuming capital cost for buses are purchase of bus/maintenance of bus only)?

by Navid Roshan on Feb 28, 2014 3:20 pm • linkreport

Until the Silver Line opens, many NoVa commuters rely on bus to rail on the Orange Line...raising that fare on top of failure to deliver the Silver Line on time (yes, an MWAA problem - but perception = reality), will not win over folks west of the river

by Jack Jackson on Feb 28, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

There's other issues with the bus-bus transfers. The 2 hour limit is often too short for long trips, such as the B29 to F4 to anything.

Plus, I don't trust WMATA's clocks; I've been nailed for a second fare even when I am sure it was less than two hours; but you get no notice, and no viable way to appeal.

by GeorgeB on Feb 28, 2014 5:25 pm • linkreport

This is an easy one: raise the bus fares when service improves, either through standard improvements like more express service, or progressive change like transit signal priority or bus-only lanes. Failing that, I think the railriders need to step off. Riding the bus sucks (I do it every day) and the low costs make that crummy service bearable.

by 11luke on Feb 28, 2014 6:01 pm • linkreport

@GeorgeB; amen to that.

I also have a constant problem of bus smartrip meters NOT working. When you are trying to play the transfer game that is bad. Also contributes to the entire problem of people not paying for a bus ride. On a light route I've been hassled for cash by the driver when the meter isn't working, on a busy route he just waves you by....100+ people not paying.

by charlie on Mar 1, 2014 7:53 am • linkreport

I bet that median Metrobus rider income of 70k is skewed by some areas. I bet if it was broken down by jurisdiction it would change vastly. Also how are they getting their numbers; are they using tax data, are they asking riders (which may result in answers that aren’t truthful), are they asking jurisdictions etc.

@Navid Roshan
Do you honest believe that if fares are higher we would get better service? More likely the board of WMATA or employees would get a raise or bonus. Every time WMATA has raised bus or rail fare since the 80’s nothing good has been done.
Also they tend to blame the customer for their internal problems many times. Do you remember the stolen money from parking lots which WMATA blamed on riders but it was later found out to be employees?

I’m one of those employees who does not get any type of fare subsidy I pay out of pocket every single day; it is extremely annoying when people on this site talk about the fare subsidies. New Flash only white collar workers get the subsidies if you have a blue collar job or something like retail, hospitality, healthcare and not at a hospital (think nursing home or home health aides) or work for a small company you get jack shit as a fare subsidy.

I also believe this sometimes; once I went through a faregate at 2:59pm according to a stations clock and 2:59 and 55 seconds according to my clock yet got charged rush hour fare. For the past few years I have been timing everything to the second when it comes to WMATA because they are so undependable I do not trust their clocks for a second.

When it comes to the fares and 2 hour windows or rush/nonrush for rail I think a time stamp should be displayed on the display when touching cards against the farebox or faregates. That way you know exactly what time what happen down to the second.

Right now there would be no way to know if you are correct or not or when there is a computer error. If the times were wrong just once they could make thousands or hundreds of thousands off of riders. And they damn sure wouldn't admit it.

by kk on Mar 1, 2014 11:42 am • linkreport

So, we've established:

1. Even the bus' frequent customers think riding the bus sucks

2. As a result, fares have to be low to compensate for their suckiness. That means government has to provide greater subsidies which leaves less money to spend on transportation that people actually like, like CaBi and rail or infrastructure like cycletracks or colored concrete for bike lanes...or streetcars which people generally like better and pay for themselves through development.

I'll add:

3. Some bus drivers drive like maniacs which make walking and biking more dangerous. I know multiple people who have been hit by metrobuses.

4. Roads/lanes/turning radiuses designed for buses are excessively big for cars which encourages speeding.

So, instead of throwing good money after bad, reduce spending on buses and shift that money over to the forms of transportation people actually like.

by Falls Church on Mar 1, 2014 5:07 pm • linkreport

First, an ideological statement. Distance based fares within a single city are IMHO immoral. In turn, charging residents a "you don't live close enough to the subway" fare is redlining. WMATA owes all DC residents the availability of an "all you can eat" monthly pass such as New York and Chicago have good for unlimited bus and rail use within DC.
As to the farebox recovery disparities, research will show the DC figures are similar to those in other metros.

by david vartanoff on Mar 3, 2014 9:50 pm • linkreport

Real cities like NYC, Toronto, etc. have free transfer from bus to rail.

by Capt. Hilts on Mar 6, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

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