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WMATA budget deep dive, part 5: Is the fare fair?

Do WMATA fare hike and service cut proposals put a disproportionate burden on low income and minority populations?

Photo by cacaphony76.

WMATA General Manager John Catoe has proposed an FY11 budget that includes $89.2 million in fare increases and $33.7 million in rail and bus service reductions.

In a 2007 survey, WMATA found that Metrorail passengers had a median income of $102,000, were 75% white and only 1 in 50 did not own an automobile. In contrast, Metrobus passengers had a median income of $69,600, were 50% minority and one in five did not own an automobile.

The FY11 proposed budget contains fare hikes averaging a little over 15% for Metrorail passengers and has a target of $15.4 million in actual service reductions. In contrast, Metrobus fares are proposed to rise over 20% with service reductions of $18.3 million. These proposed bus service reductions translate to about 3.5% of Metrobus service compared to rail reductions of about 2%.

A closer look at the proposed bus service reductions finds that the African-American majority jurisdictions, the District of Columbia and Prince George's County, comprise $5.7 million of the proposed bus "subsidy savings." In contrast, Montgomery County and Virginia comprise only $3.8 million of the "subsidy savings." (The budget refers to the net saving from a proposal, including the predicted loss of ridership, as "subsidy savings," though it's not directly related to any jurisdiction's subsidy.)

The rest (bus stop changes, holiday schedule changes, late night service reductions and several routes that cross county lines in Maryland can't be easily broken down by county. However, even among these, the District leads with $2.6 million in subsidy reductions, followed by Maryland at $2 million and Virginia at about 0.9 million. These cuts roughly parallel the percentages of bus service in each jurisdiction.

Proponents argue that everyone must share in the pain and that bus service subsidies are much higher than rail subsidies so a greater percentage of bus service reductions and higher fare increases are justified. They argue that previous bus fare increases lagged rail fare increases. They further argue that since WMATA is composed of individual jurisdictions, the pain of bus service reductions should be spread evenly among those who pay the subsidies.

Opponents argue that Metrobus service costs less than Metrorail, runs more revenue miles and that it is subsidized at a higher rate because Metrorail service has replaced almost all the most productive bus routes. They further argue that you have to look at Metro as a single system and that the steps taken last year to provide two way fare discounts for transferring to rail and bus are a step in the right direction where this proposal is a step in the wrong direction. They say it's unfair to ask less well off riders to pay bigger fare increases and suffer more service reductions than the well-to-do and that it is particularly bad to ask in a recession.

Regardless of the merits of each position, it seems clear that low income, minority and the transit dependent will take a bigger hit if these proposals are implemented than wealthier, white transit riders who own autos.

Craig Simpson is currently working as a representative for Progressive Maryland. He has in the past worked for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO. He has a degree in Labor Studies from the National Labor College. 


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and this my friends is why forced diversity is not a good thing. everything becomes a black v white, majority vs minority fight.

a sidenote: a median income of $69,000 is very high.

by PPE on Feb 26, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

To be fair, comparing the total "bus subsidy savings" between the District, PGC, MoCo, and Virginia is apples-and-oranges, given the overall level of Metrobus service in each jurisdiction. A better metric would have been to look at the "subsidy savings" in comparison to the overall level of bus service in the jurisdiction.

by Froggie on Feb 26, 2010 11:59 am • linkreport

PG County could have minimized the impact by allowing more density near metro stations, and so less people would need to take a bus to a metro station, THEN walk.

Two other points:
1. A large chunk of Metro passes is paid for by government and many local employers, and so there is no immediate impact on employees bottom line, at least for commuting.

2. You could look at things from the other POV. Given that transit remains subsidized by taxes, etc, the wealthier jurisdictions are already paying more than their "fair share." This is not to discount hardship on the poor, but to argue that there is another side, and focusing on the impact on the poor only stokes class divisions.

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 12:18 pm • linkreport

Sorry, my typo: if there was more density in PG county, people can walk to the metro, which saves them money

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 12:21 pm • linkreport

Rail fares are high, and ridership is high too. It's hard to cut rail service and have much of a net benefit on subsidy. Eventually you cut service that pays for itself. You only need about 40 people in a railcar paying peak fares for the train to pay for that mile of service.

Bus riders have been held harmless for so long, while peak rail has seen fairly large increases. From such a low base, it's hard to increase it at all without it being a large percentage, let alone an increase that gets to the next even quarter.

Fare increases on peak riders have allowed the system to absorb cost increases in bus and paratransit without devastating service cuts.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 26, 2010 12:26 pm • linkreport

I think another consideration here is what we consider to be fair, and what we expect the results to be. Reducing metrorail ridership will directly increase traffic (everyone already has a car). This will increase traffic as well as other quality of life issues (air, noise, etc). Reducing bus service will inconvenience the people who must ride, but they're people without a choice. I'm not advocating systematic oppression of any groups in DC, but the region will never meet it's congestion reduction goals and qualify for the millions upon millions of federal funding that comes with them by tossing the rich people who could be driving first. I think you'll find that bus rides are also, generally, much shorter, and as I mentioned with short metro rides being the first to go, so to are the discretionary and short bus rides. Since bus fares are even more highly subsidized, we have to ask ourselves if these are the rides we want to be supporting anyway? They certainly burden the system by increasing the number of stops the bus has to make (and all the associated mechanical and operational issues that ensue).

by Matt on Feb 26, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

Are those median incomes per person or per household?
Big difference there.

It would be interesting to see a demographic breakdown of people who transfer between Metrorail and Metrobus. My guess (based on nothing in particular apart from my own observations) is that the average transfer passenger is less rich than the average Metrorail passenger - but they'd be getting hit twice by any fare increase (assuming the transfer discount remains at 50 cents).

by Johanna on Feb 26, 2010 12:28 pm • linkreport

Do WMATA fare hike and service cut proposals put a disproportionate burden on low income and minority populations? </>

Who cares?

by Lush Rimbaugh on Feb 26, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

I was really enjoying this series until now.

WMATA has a budget crisis. Nobody likes it. I want to find ways to generate new customers and new revenue. Lower metrorail fares for off-peak hours would generate probably $50-$75 a year from a rider like me who doesn't use it for commuting. As it is, with expensive metrorail fares and long wait times, I'd rather walk or take a bus in bad weather.

But to turn this into a black-white issue? Or even a rich-poor? To have a post and not mention half of metro riders during peak hours aren't paying for it themselves?

Interesting though experiment: what would the price of bus rides need to be to get to the same point in term of subsidy as rail (say 60%). $3 a ride? $5? And what are the profitable bus lines. I know the 5A is but what are the others?

by charlie on Feb 26, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

Aren't Metrobus fares subsidized directly by the jurisdiction in which they operate? When service cuts were planned for lines in Maryland last year, the state magically found the money to operate the lines. If these lines are threatened, couldn't each jurisdiction theoretically pony up the cash to keep them alive?

by Adam L on Feb 26, 2010 1:12 pm • linkreport

The issue is not about rich/poor, black/white, but WMATAs protected workforce who expects the rest of the community to pay for their salaries, pensions and benefits without complaint or any sacrifice from WMATA workers.

by SJE on Feb 26, 2010 1:21 pm • linkreport

Indexed for inflation, the bus fare hasn't risen for 23 years. This post should separate out bus fare issues from service cut issues. They are different issues.

Raising the fare to something like $1.60, that's what it is in Baltimore, is reasonable, taking into account smartcard discounts (which many people of color use on the bus). Maybe even raising it to $1.75 with the 10 cent discount, knowing that bus-to-bus transfers are free and bus-rail transfers get a 50 cent discount.

In Baltimore you don't get free transfers (but you can buy a $3.50 daily transit pass which entitles you to unlimited rides of bus, light rail and subway). Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, among others, charge 50 cents for a transfer.

When you take into account the 2.5 hour transfer period of the bus service, it's reasonable to charge somewhat more.

Now, what should the base fare be of the subway. AS a rider, I say don't raise it. As a transportation planner, I say if you're going to raise the bus fare to $1.60 or $1.75, then the reality is that the subway fare needs to rise more, BECAUSE IT IS A PREMIUM SERVICE even though no one seems to acknowledge this.

So that means the base fare should probably be $2.00, with a discount for off-peak service. Would that suck for riders? yes. Would it make sense from operating the service. YES.

The issue of service cuts is completely different. I argue on an equity and transit network LOQ/breadth/depth basis that service cuts should always be a last resort. For equity reasons especially _bus_ service cuts should be a last resort, especially in areas where transit dependence is greater.

I would say raising the price as I outlined, and no service cuts, is the best way to go forward for pricing and the service profile in terms of bus service fares and operation.

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2010 1:24 pm • linkreport

I'm (moderately) wealthy, ride Metro (rail), and want my fares raised gosh darnit so we can stop worrying about these budget problems and move on to fixes with reliability and capital improvement.

by Michael on Feb 26, 2010 1:27 pm • linkreport

@Richard, Rail is already priced at a premium. I think everyone acknowledges that. Base fare during rush hour is $1.60, which is higher than bus. I'm not sure what you're getting at with your comment that no one acknowledges rail is a premium service.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 26, 2010 1:31 pm • linkreport

@ Charlie: The point of the post isn't to create any issues that don't already exist. The point is to engender an open and forthright discussion.

On general note: Thanks for all the comments.

I think that any casual observer will note a difference between the bus and rail systems. What I think would be useful is to look at how we better integrate the bus and rail systems in a way that makes sense.

I'll probably support some fare increases and service reductions that will futher that inequality in the short term because I don't see alot of immediate choices.

I think some previous comments have real merit and we should look closer at their ideas and their impact: permitting stopovers on Metrorail, increased value of bus/rail transfer, subsidized smartrip cards for low-income similar to the way the DC public school system utilizes WMATA. I'm sure there are alot of others.

by Craig Simpson on Feb 26, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

Here's what the phrase "rail is a premium service" brings to my mind:

I went to and used the trip planner to figure out the cost and length of time a trip from College Park to Dupont Circle will require next Monday morning, March 1.

Assume two identical people show up at the College Park station at 8:30 a.m. The rail rider will get to Dupont Circle between 9 and 9:15 a.m. and pay $3.40. The bus rider will get to Dupont Circle between 10 and 10:15 a.m. and will pay $1.35 with a SmarTrip card. Reverse and repeat for evening rush hour.

Yeah, I'm paying for a premium service so as not to spend 10 more hours per week commuting.

by Greenbelt Gal on Feb 26, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

Rail is not priced at a premium if you consider the quality and the frequency of service.

At least, you are thinking that the price difference between bus and subway fare is significant. I don't agree.

It is during peak and of course for distance. But for short distances the price difference is minimal. Would you pay $1.35 for a subway ride vs. $1.25 for a bus ride? Of course, but the quality difference probably justifies a much higher price. Maybe it's not the difference between a Swatch and a Rolex, but there is still a significant difference.

It's not being priced as a premium service as much as it is being priced as a distance service.

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2010 2:06 pm • linkreport

How much do you get paid per hour? More than $2.05? Probably $20-40/hour? This is all about opportunity costs. Your hour of time is probably worth a couple more $ at least in terms of increased fare. But I am not saying charge that much more, maybe 50 cents.

I am forgetting at the moment all the different components of the subway fare, there's the basic fee to get on, plus the cost per mile, etc. Maybe we could call this the rail premium charge. There are many components to what comprises the quality improvement.

In any case, I'd gladly pay more than $2 to get a better ride one hour more quickly.

Think about this on the weekends, when there are 20 minute headways. Wouldn't you be willing to pay up to double the fare to have 10 minute headways? I would. I don't want to stand at the station, I want to get to my destination and do stuff.

by Richard Layman on Feb 26, 2010 2:11 pm • linkreport

This notion of "premium service" is a bunch on nonsense that clouds the debate here. Are interstates "premium roads" because the speed limit is higher? No, they're just roads with a higher speed limit that are part of a (supposedly) efficient road network. There are less of them because they focus on arterial routes.

The same thing happens in transit. Buses are the local roads, metro trains the county roads, VRE and MARC are like state roads and AMTRAK is the equivalent of the interstate system.

To suggest that using metro is a premium service and that the shorter travel period is "premium service" is as nonsensical as claiming that interstates are premium roads as compared to local roads.

by Jasper on Feb 26, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

They need to cut there personnel and services expenses back to 2008 numbers, they save $180 MILLION!!!!!!!!!!!!

How does this increase by $180 MILLION in 3 years!!!!!!!

If they go on strike I hear there are alot of Americans who need a job!!!!

by jcp on Feb 26, 2010 2:24 pm • linkreport



by Adam L on Feb 26, 2010 2:46 pm • linkreport

@craig; I meant no offense -- I do find these posts useful, except this one.

@Richard Layman; in my experience, for short trips the bus provides a quicker trip than rail. That is with NextBus working and during non-rush hour traffic as well. The 10 cents difference on rail is there isn't likely a homeless person sitting next to you. However, rail is now slower, more crowded, breaks down and longer wait times.

by charlie on Feb 26, 2010 3:36 pm • linkreport

If the auto CEO's and other corporate leaders can all decide to take $1 a year, why can't Metro's top brass? I understand they make considerably less then other business executives, and in many cases are career transit people who are not in it for the money, but the service has been so bad even before the cuts that they need to save every penny they can to put into improving service without making drastic long term cuts. I'll admit in the short run cuts and rate hikes are pretty much unavoidable. Also, regarding WAMATA leadership, my suggestion is to have the people elect the board members who's job it is to serve riders. The members of each county and DC should be elected by the people they "represent" on the board. Can anyone explain to me how the current board members got to be on the board? The events of the the past year, along with their chronic funding issues have lead me to think that riders need more of a voice in who sits on the board. I would also not be against some federal representation, as long as it was not a majority of the board.

by Mike on Feb 26, 2010 8:16 pm • linkreport

Jasper, clearly we're never going to agree. e.g., your definition of premium service wrt roads and Interstate highways is exactly the opposite of how these roads are treated in transportation planning, funding and service prioritization, and the overall hierarchical planning of the road network.

charlie -- it all depends really. If you are proximate to point to point bus service it definitely is faster than the time required for subway travel because instead of walking to the subway and waiting for the next train, you are on the bus, moving to your final destination.

when I first lived in the H Street neighborhood back in the late 1980s people were always shocked that I didn't ride the subway much, but mixed it up with the unwashed on the X2. I said "I can get downtown in 15 minutes on the bus, but it takes that long just to get to Union Station and on the train, after waiting for it to arrive."

Of course, now I would say for short trips (3-5 miles) a bike is generally faster than either the bus or the subway, once you figure wait times into the equation. (even going uphill on Georgia Avenue, I can outrun particular buses, because they make many stops and I don't--and I ride at typical speeds of 10-12 mph.)

The problem of course is going places with other people, particularly other people who don't bike.

by Richard Layman on Feb 27, 2010 7:26 am • linkreport


There is Federal representation on the board.

Working for $1 a year is a publicity stunt. CEO's get stock options. We won't work for $1 a year and we shouldn't expect anyone else to.


by Kaleel on Feb 27, 2010 8:49 am • linkreport

The one thing that should be off the table is cutting the salaries of Metro workers. We all benefit from having a stable, skilled, experienced Metro workforce. None of us will benefit from a demoralized workforce looking for the exit.

And I'm okay with effectively subsidizing bus service. We need to recognize that bus and rail attract different kinds of riders (for the most part -- I ride both), and that bus riders are less able to shoulder fare increases than rail riders.

The best solution, though, is the jurisdictions and the federal government ponying up the money to keep both rail and bus affordable, safe, and convenient alternatives to driving. Or, you know, commuting by car will become even more nightmarish.

by Matt W on Feb 27, 2010 11:26 am • linkreport

@ Matt W- Somebody call 911, because Matt has bumped his head! The Metro workforce is already demoralized, unstable unskilled and looking for the exit. Need examples??? Every day we riders see ample evidence- bus operators that won't put down the cell phones; rail station managers that obviously think of riders as an afterthought and an imposition, refusing to provide any measure of "customer service"; rail operators that drive the trains through stop signals, or can't remember how many cars are on the train they are driving; track workers that can't be bothered with safety protocols, putting themselves and others at risk; management at WMATA that ignores mandated repairs and upgrades at all of our peril. I could go on, but what's the point?! The point is- cutting the salaries of Metro workers ought to be front and center in this debate. Sadly, it has not been.

by Kevinm on Feb 27, 2010 1:17 pm • linkreport

@ Richard L: So I should consider my little cul-de-sac a premium road?

Your POV is organizational, mine is from the user. IMHO it is irrelevant for the user how things were organized and financed.

by Jasper on Feb 27, 2010 2:09 pm • linkreport


We should also cut the salaries of federal and state workers because their budgets are in the red. Federal and state workers are un-skilled as well.


by Kaleel on Feb 27, 2010 8:18 pm • linkreport


If your salary were cut, would you be motivated to do better at your job?

And if you were trying to hire well-qualified, conscientious workers, would you succeed better if you offered a bigger salary, or a smaller salary?

I've heard a lot of people say that other people are overpaid, but I haven't heard many people say that they, themselves, are overpaid.

by Miriam on Feb 27, 2010 9:14 pm • linkreport

I don't believe that survey for one second. Really, NINETY-EIGHT percent of metro riders and 80% of bus riders own a car? Since over a third of DC households don't have a car, this seems impossible...even if you factor in VA and MD folks and tourists. I'm similarly skeptical of the income reporting.

While I agree that bus riders are probably lower-income and less likely to own cars than metro riders, the survey seems to have had a real problem with sampling or data processing or something, to the point where I don't think it should even be cited.

by stacy on Feb 28, 2010 12:49 am • linkreport

Kevinm, I'm not persuaded at all by anecdotal, subjective accounts of poor service or by isolated incidents in which operators did not follow WMATA safety policies. Smart organizations don't slash everyone's salaries because of isolated incidents. That's where retraining or progressive discipline is appropriate.

by Matt W on Feb 28, 2010 1:05 am • linkreport

@ Miriam
If I was a screw-up on my job and my salary was cut, I would know why and have to accept it. Also, I would have no problem if Metro offered high salaries to well-qualified, conscientious applicants, but that is not what I see in the Metro workforce. In fact, on the front lines I find it rare when I encounter such an employee.

@ Matt W
When the anecdotal, subjective accounts become as frequent as they are, then one must acknowledge that there must be something to them. Where there is smoke, there is fire, so-to-speak. At this point, the fire is out of control, and so is the Metro workforce. Almost every day, another outrageous act of stupidity is caught on camera, or recounted on the evening news. For the level of service we are getting from current Metro employees, they are overpaid; I don't think that it would be out of line for Metro to ask for salary concessions from the union, especially under the current budgetary circumstances. That's just my personal opinion- Metro employees are overpaid. Generally speaking, they don't accept that they are customer service employees; they view riders as an afterthought, something to be tolerated as they drive the buses and operate the trains along the rails. I'm all for retraining and progressive discipline, but it seems like every time we turn around, the entire workforce needs retraining on some aspect that they should already have been adequately prepared for. That is not acceptable.

Bottom line- Metro is not getting our money's worth from front line employees, and considering this current financial situation, demanding salary concessions from the union would not be out of line.

by Kevinm on Feb 28, 2010 2:10 pm • linkreport

Kevinm, no, I think that your collection of complaints just demonstrates that front-line Metro employees are under a great deal of scrutiny, and that WMATA needs to improve its training. The vast, vast majority of trips every day are completely uneventful, a fact that is almost never remarked upon.

by Matt W on Feb 28, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

@ Matt W

The vast majority of trips are uneventful? Says who? I don't get to ride an uneventful ride except ever-so-rarely. Come ride the D-6 though N.E. DC and downtown, and let me know when you have an "uneventful" ride. Ride the rail from downtown to Stadium/Armory on a weekday evening and let me know when you have an "uneventful" ride. I speak from my personal, daily experience and there is no doubt in my mind that the majority of Metro's front line employees don't "get it".

by Kevinm on Mar 1, 2010 6:40 am • linkreport

Kevinm, is your objection that Metro employees get paid too much, or that they do a lousy job?

If the problem is that Metro employees do a lousy job, the solution must involve ways to get them to do their job the way they're supposed to. It's hard to me to imagine that paying them less will get them to do a better job, or that it will induce well-qualified, conscientious people to apply for a job they hadn't previously considered.

If the problem is that they get paid too much, the next question is, how much should they get paid? It may be possible to hire well-qualified, conscientious people for less money than Metro's current salaries, or it may not. I don't know. Do you? I do know that what you or I might think a person deserves to get paid has very little to do with what that person actually gets paid. (If it did, my daughter's pre-school teacher would be a lot wealthier, and a lot of hedge fund managers would be a lot poorer.)

by Miriam on Mar 1, 2010 7:48 am • linkreport

@ Miriam
The answer is- both apply. Metro employees do a lousy job, and, they get paid too much. Again, that's just my personal opinion. I believe that in the current financial climate and considering the jobless rate, well-qualified, conscientious people would apply for the jobs at less than what Metro currently pays.

And by the way, pre-school teachers, generally, should be a lot better paid, and as for hedge fund managers, well, they are generally the scum-of-the-earth and are worthless, as far as I am concerned. Just my personal opinion...

by Kevinm on Mar 1, 2010 8:31 am • linkreport

It's not as simple as just firing everybody and hiring new employees. There isn't a bunch of qualified people on the street that have knowledge of trains and Metro electrical systems that are required to make things work. Just the cost of hiring and training a brand new work force would be astronomical. How many of us want to board the train with a brand new work force with trains still running in manual mode?


by Kaleel on Mar 1, 2010 9:44 am • linkreport

A perfect example of a Metro employee who is overpaid- the person who administers the art in rail stations program apparently makes $100,000 yearly. That is outrageous! That is a $40,000 yearly position at best, and I bet Metro could get capable, qualified applicants at less than that. Utterly ridiculous that the job pays that much!

by kevinm on Mar 2, 2010 10:08 am • linkreport

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