The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Fares

Transit


When a train pass gets you rides on more than just trains, it's good for the region

Did you know that a weekly or monthly ticket for MARC commuter rail and certain types of tickets for VRE commuter rail, during the time when they are valid, are also good for unlimited rides on every many other transit systems in the DC and Baltimore region except for Metrorail? It's a well-kept secret, and an example of a partnership across agencies that should happen more often.


Photo by Ryan Stavely on Flickr.

MARC, or Maryland Area Rail Commuter, is a service of the Maryland Transit Administration that operates daily between DC's Union Station Baltimore Penn Station via New Carrollton throughout the day in both directions (the Penn Line), as well as rush-hour trains on weekdays between DC and Baltimore Camden Yards via Greenbelt (the Camden Line) and DC and Frederick, Maryland/Martinsburg, West Virginia via Montgomery County (the Brunswick Line).

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is a service of two Northern Virginia regional transit commissions that runs weekday rush-hour trains, in the peak direction of travel, between DC's Union Station and Fredericksburg and Manassas/Broad Run.

You can buy single ride, weekly, and monthly MARC passes, all for a flat fee. That obviously gets you onto a MARC train, but if you show your ticket to the driver, you owe no additional fare on all many of greater Washington's bus services, including Metrobus and RideOn DC Circulator RideOn. Your MARC ticket is also an unlimited pass to all of Baltimore's transit system, including the subway, light rail, and buses. Simply show it to the station agent when entering the subway or to a fare inspector on light rail.

Similarly, a paper VRE ticket (single ride, weekly or monthly) is valid for rides on any bus service that connects with a VRE station (including Metrobus, ART, DASH, Fairfax Connector, FRED (Fredericksburg) and PRTC/OmniLink buses) at no additional fare. VRE riders can also purchase monthly Transit Link Cards, which are like SmarTrip cards, but are good for unlimited rides on both Metrorail and VRE during the month.

These features make MARC and VRE passes a great deal not only for those who travel regularly between DC and Baltimore, but also for commuters who come into DC from places like Rockville, Gaithersburg, Kensington, College Park, Greenbelt, New Carrollton, Alexandria, Crystal City, and Franconia/Springfield. MARC and VRE riders can use buses (and VRE riders with Transit Link Cards can use Metrorail) to cover the first or last mile at either end of their train trip as well as to get around on evenings and weekends, all for no additional cost.


Photo by JanetandPhil on Flickr.

There are precious few other examples of similar interagency cooperation in our region. One notable one is the interchangeability between DC's SmarTrip (administered by WMATA) and Baltimore's Charm Card (administered by the Maryland Transit Administration); either card works on all the greater DC jurisdictions' bus systems (including regional bus passes loaded onto a SmarTrip). However, you can't use a SmarTrip or Charm Card to pay commuter rail fare on MARC or VRE, except for Transit Link Cards (many other regions' contactless fare cards can be used on commuter rail as well as local transit), and you also must have separate form of payment to use Capital Bikeshare, commuter buses, taxis, etc.

Only recently has WMATA introduced a pass that works on both rail and bus (the SelectPass), but it still costs significantly more to add a bus pass to a rail pass and vice versa. WMATA could entice more riders to buy passes and not lose significant revenue by allowing monthly Metrorail passes to also include unlimited bus rides.

VRE should offer its weekly and monthly ticket holders the same connectivity benefits as MARC does—at least for Metrobus and northern Virginia local buses, if not also for Maryland buses. MTA, Loudoun County Transit, PRTC, and other commuter bus riders could also give their monthly pass holders the same benefits as MARC and VRE.

Eventually, there should be one card that pays fare on all the DC-Baltimore region's public conveyances—Metro, local bus, commuter bus, commuter rail, ferries, taxis, bikeshare, and special buses like Washington Flyer and the YTS New Carrollton-Annapolis bus—to which weekly and monthly passes could be added that could include all these modes, either at no additional charge or at a discount, or as many of them as the user wishes to add.

The simpler it is to determine and pay the fare on transit, and the more people feel like they are getting a good deal by "buying in bulk," the more people will be attracted to use all of these forms of travel and to think of and experience them as one interconnected system. MTA and VRE obviously overcame the hurdle of administrative siloing when it made deals with WMATA and other agencies for MARC and VRE pass holders. There's no reason other agencies can't do the same.

Correction: This article originally said that MARC passes work for the DC Circulator, and omitted facts about VRE tickets working on other transit systems. It has been updated to for accuracy.

Transit


How much could you save with a Metro SelectPass? Use our updated calculator to find out!

WMATA has expanded its new monthly pass program, SelectPass. Now, you can buy a pass for nine different levels of fares based on your travel patterns. What's right for you? We've created a calculator.


Photo by Ken Teegardin on Flickr.

SelectPass gives you a monthly pass for the cost of 18 round trips (36 one-ways) at a price you select. You pick a pass at the level of your regular one-way rush-hour fare; any extra trips of the same or lesser value are free, and more expensive ones just cost the difference between that fare and the single-trip fare.

The cost of the monthly SelectPass, therefore, is 36 times the cost of the fare threshold you choose, ranging from $81 for a $2.25 SelectPass to $212.40 for a $5.90 SelectPass. It's available for every 25¢ increment from $2.25 to $4.00, and also at the maximum fare of $5.90. Is it a good deal for you?

To find out what your savings could be, use the calculator below, which Greater Greater Washington contributor Chris Slatt developed and I adapted and expanded.

We've filled it in with an example representing someone who commutes 20 days a month at rush hour between East Falls Church and Farragut West (40 trips at $3.30 each), and does a round trip in the afternoon between Farragut West and Capitol South once a week (eight trips at $1.75 each). If you don't know how much your trips cost, go to the Metrorail stations page and click on the station where you're starting your trip.

WMATA SelectPass Savings Calculator

In a typical month, how many one-way trips do you take and how much do they cost?

Trips per Month Fare per Trip
$3.30
$1.75

Monthly Fares Paid and Savings

Normal Fare: $
Pass level Pass cost Extra fare Total Savings
$2.25 $81.00 $ $
$2.50 $90.00 $ $
$2.75 $99.00 $ $
$3.00 $108.00 $ $
$3.25 $117.00 $ $
$3.50 $126.00 $ $
$3.75 $135.00 $ $
$4.00 $144.00 $ $
$5.90 $212.40 $ $

In the graph above, the green bar shows the pass that is the best deal for you. Blue bars show passes that will also save you money, while those with gray bars will not.

How much would you save with a pass?

Budget


On Metro, not all off-peak discounts are created equal

Riding Metrorail outside of peak hours is less expensive, but the amount discounted off of the peak price varies quite a bit by how far you travel. Riders with the largest discounts are more likely than others to wait until off-peak fares start before they enter the system.


Photo by Malcolm Kenton.

Metrorail bases its fares on distances, meaning that usually, the farther you travel, the more you pay. Riders can find the peak and off-peak fares for their trips on the top of the fare payment machines in each system.

Peak fares are charged on weekdays from opening to 9:30 am, and again between 3:00 and 7:00 pm. Off-peak fares are in effect all other times. Around 9:30 am and 7:00 pm, you may notice riders idling outside faregates, waiting for the cheaper off-peak fares to kick in prior to swiping into their origin station.


Graphs by the author.

Presumably, these riders know what it would cost them to ride during both peak and off-peak times, and have decided that the savings are worth the wait. That doesn't mean, however, that they're more frugal than those who swipe in just before 7:00 pm and pay the more expensive peak fare—what's actually more likely is that those waiting get a bigger discount off their peak price than those who aren't.

What's interesting is that a lot of people don't know that off-peak fare discounts vary—Metro's planning blog itself describes off-peak fares as "generally a 25% reduction from peak fares" when in actuality, off-peak fares can range from a 19% to 40% reduction of peak fares. Riders simply know that they get a discount of some size, and they act accordingly.

Off-peak fares are capped differently from peak fares

So why do off-peak discounts vary so much, and who are the lucky riders getting the biggest savings?

Metro's off-peak fare structure was updated to its current fee-per-mile structure in 2012. At that time, to lessen the impact of a large off-peak fare increase for some riders, WMATA limited the percent increase between the old (2010) and new (2012) off-peak fares to 27%.

It turns out this "cap" only affects trips of just under seven and ten miles. WMATA also set the maximum off-peak fare at $3.60. This fare cap benefits riders with trips longer than 11 miles. Metro's current peak fare structure is simpler; the only limitation is a maximum peak fare of $5.90.

As seen below, when off-peak fare limits kick in, the difference between peak and off-peak fares is accentuated. Riders with trips of specific lengths (highlighted green) benefit from higher-percentage off-peak savings.

Basically, the large off-peak discounts are the unintentional outcomes of well-intentioned policies. These off-peak fare limits were aimed to benefit off-peak riders, but not necessarily sway would-be peak riders into off-peak travel.

And while the off-peak fare caps at just under seven and ten miles made sense in 2012, they seem a bit arbitrary now since most riders traveling these mileages probably aren't the same riders who the caps were initially intending to protect.

But hey, we'll take it!

You can read a more formal analysis of ridership patterns on my website.

Transit


How much could you save with a Metro SelectPass? Use our calculator to find out!

SelectPass, Metro's new monthly pass program, currently has two versions: one that charges $2.25 per trip, and one that charges $3.75. Those whose regular fares are usually less than $2.25 or more than $3.75 may be unsure of whether the program would save them money, so we've created a calculator to show whether it would.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The program works by allowing riders to pay upfront for 18 days' worth of round-trip commutes, at costs of either $2.25 or $3.75 per trip. Any extra trips of the same or lesser value are free, and longer ones just cost the difference between that trip and the single-trip charge.

Would getting a SelectPass save you money?

Because the pilot only offers passes at two price points, WMATA has suggested that it only offers savings to those whose one-way commute costs between $2.25 and $3.75. But since the SelectPass allows you to take more expensive trips for a reduced price, it also offers savings to anyone who regularly takes longer trips. Other riders, like those with less regular commutes but quite a few short trips each month, could also save.

To find out what your savings could be, use the calculator below, which Greater Greater Washington contributor Chris Slatt developed and I adapted and expanded.

We've filled it in with an example representing someone who commutes 20 days a month at rush hour between East Falls Church and Farragut West (40 trips at $3.30 each), and does a round trip in the afternoon between Farragut West and Capitol South once a week (eight trips at $1.75 each). If you don't know how much your trips cost, go to the Metrorail stations page and click on the station where you're starting your trip.

WMATA SelectPass Savings Calculator

In a typical month, how many one-way trips do you take and how much do they cost?

Trips per Month Fare per Trip
$3.30
$1.75

Monthly Fares Paid and Savings

Normal Fare: $
$2.25 SelectPass Fare: $
$3.75 SelectPass Fare: $

It's worth repeating that the program is only a pilot right now, meaning WMATA could add more versions (i.e., more options for what price you buy your pass at) as it develops.

Transit


Have you gotten your Metro SelectPass yet?

Do you take Metro four or more days a week? Is your usual trip around $2.25 to $3.75? If so, get Metro's new SelectPass right now!

Metro SelectPass is a new unlimited pass that's a far better deal than passes WMATA previously offered. It's had rail passes for years, but they weren't a good deal for most riders. This is.

Here's how it works: You select the level of fare you usually spend (for most people, that's the rush hour fare for your regular commute). You buy a pass that costs 36 times that fare, of the equivalent of 18 round trips. You then get unlimited rides costing that amount or less.

If you take a trip that costs more, you just pay the difference between your set fare level and the trip you took. You can also add an unlimited bus pass for $45, which is also a great deal since the main bus pass is $17.50 for a week; this gives you a month for the price of 2½ weeks.

If you use SmartBenefits, you can also get the pass. According to Shyam Kannan, WMATA's planning head, you have to ask your employer to "allocate your funds to transit pass benefits" (a phrase which should make sense to whomever manages SmartBenefits in your organization). Basically, they just mark the money as being designated for a pass, rather than ride-by-ride fares, but they don't have to say which pass; you can do that from the SmarTrip site.

Greater Greater Washington pushed for this pass

The initials for Metro SelectPass are "MSP," which are the same as those for Michael S. Perkins, the Greater Greater Washington contributor who championed a flexible, unlimited pass which looks a lot like the SelectPass.

Kannan said the initials weren't intentional, but Perkins' articles did inform and persuade the planners who worked on the pass. He said, "This reflects the value of the Greater Greater Washington community, the ability to take ideas, percolate them, work them through a collaborative dialogue, and make them actually happen."

"It also reflects the ability of the agency to innovate," he added. "[For] anyone who is a semi-regular to regular Metrorail user, it should save them money—20-22% off your regular trips, plus you get to travel as much as you want nights and weekends. For anyone that's wanted to really lead a transit lifestyle but felt that the cost of that incremental trip was a barrier, we've now given you all the reasons in the world to say I can now live car-free, purchase the pass, and take transit all I want."

Help the pilot succeed

Right now, the program is a pilot. If a lot of people use the pass and it leads to more trips on Metro or hits other benchmarks, and if the board of directors doesn't meddle too much, WMATA officials hope to make it permanent.

They will also add more tiers. Right now, there are just the two, $2.25 and $3.75. That covers a lot of commuters, but not all. The ultimate plan is to offer a pass that's 36 times the daily one-way cost for any rider. Seattle's PugetPass, which was the inspiration for this pass, lets people do just that—they can pick any fare level and buy a corresponding pass.

Addendum: Some readers have asked if this is going to cost WMATA money. This article discusses that question in more depth. Basically, while a pass could save an individual rider money, it can attract people to ride more and encourage people to use off-peak capacity that's already going empty.

Also, a pass can smooth out revenue ups and downs. WMATA lost about $2 million by shutting down for one day. If most people were on passes, that wouldn't have happened, nor would it hurt the budget during snowstorms or federal government shutdowns, which are outside WMATA's control.

If the $2.25 and $3.75 levels don't work for you, just sit tight. If they do, help make the pilot a success, and save yourself some money, by getting your pass now.

Transit


WMATA will try out flexible "name your own price" passes

Metro can help riders, make its revenue more predictable, and encourage people to ride transit with a system of flexible passes. The WMATA Board is expected to authorize WMATA to move ahead with a pilot program at its meeting Thursday.


Flexible image from Shutterstock.

Michael Perkins, one of our resident transit experts, has been advocating for such a system for a long time. There aren't yet many public details of what WMATA leaders have in mind, but so far, it looks very close to what I like to call the "Perkins Pass."

A resolution for Thursday's board meeting would authorize the agency to try a pass for six months, after which the board would decide whether to make it permanent.

Below is an updated version of a recent article on passes, with new information about what WMATA has revealed so far.

What would passes do? Why are they a good idea?

The basic idea of a pass is that a rider pays for a ticket whose price is close to the cost of taking one round-trip ride each weekday. That covers basic commuting, but then riders also get additional transit trips for free.

This is great for riders because extra mid-day trips on top of basic commuting don't cost more. But it's also good for the transit agency. Off-peak, the trains and buses aren't full, so it's not really costing more to transport someone at those times. While the agency loses out on revenue from those trips, it's likely to make up the difference through attracting riders overall.

Mary Hynes, Arlington's representative on the WMATA Board (and who will attend her last meeting as a board member on Thursday), thinks this could help encourage riders who've started abandoning Metro to give it another try. "We need to find a way to give riders a way to come back," she said. "The flex pass has that built into it, since you're buying a certain amount of service and then can ride for free.

Another big advantage to flex passes is that they would make the revenue more predictable, as the costs of running transit wouldn't change based on how many people are riding. This problem comes up some years and causes a sudden loss of revenue. For example, when the government shut down in 2011, Metro lost about $250,000 a day.

That would be far less if most federal workers were using a pass. The same goes for snowstorms and other unexpected disruptions. Riders might save a little money on normal months and pay a little extra (or, if they work for the government, the government might pay a little extra) in shutdowns and snowstorms, but this evens out everyone's costs.

Mobile phones, streaming video like Netflix, and many other services work the same way. You pay for your voice and data plan, not per minute. On average, it works out, but what you pay and what the phone company receives are more predictable.

Hynes said, "It's a win for the region because passes actually begin to maximize the use of the existing routes, and a win for the agency because it adds revenue predictability."

How would a pass system work on Metro?

Metro has some passes today. As Michael Perkins explained in 2010, when passes first started integrating with SmarTrip cards, the bus pass is fairly popular but the rail passes are less so.

A big reason is Metro's fares, which vary by distance. That means one pass at one price would either be a huge steal for long-distance riders or outrageously expensive for short-distance ones. Metro has two passes now, a full pass that gives unlimited rides anywhere, and a "short rail" pass that's only good for short trips. But most people don't use either of these.

Fortunately, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. In the Seattle area, they have many transit agencies with many fares, but one single pass, the Puget Pass.

The way this pass works is actually quite simple. Riders say what their regular commute is, and the system computes the regular fare. Then, it calculates a monthly pass based on that fare which costs 36 times the one-way fare. With that pass, the rider can then take all trips of that price or less for free for one month. If the rider takes a longer trip, he or she just pays the extra out of the cash balance on their ORCA card, the equivalent of our SmarTrip.

(If you thought to yourself, "Why not just have a flat fare?" you're asking something many new board members also ask. Here's a detailed explanation of why a flat fare is a bad idea. While some cities, like New York, do have a flat fare, Metro is very different; many trips on Metro would use commuter railroads in New York, which don't have a flat fare either. And we handle transfers differently too.)

Michael Perkins computed a detailed proposal for how to implement passes on Metro based on a few simple principles. He suggested a system like Puget Pass, plus a special "Just Add Bus" rate to add a bus pass onto a flexible rail pass.

What's next?

The board resolution doesn't go into many details, but says:

Metro staff have been exploring a new monthly transit pass that would allow riders
to purchase an unlimited amount of transit usage at a personalized price point in exchange for transitioning from a "pay as you go" structure to a "monthly subscription" structure.
That sounds a lot like the "Perkins Pass." Assuming the resolution passes, staff will bring more details to the board in January, start a test in the spring, and present results in the summer or fall.

Paul Wiedefeld, the new General Manager, says he wants to find ways to improve the customer experience on Metro in the short run. This program won't solve the bigger systemic challenges Metro faces, but it would be a meaningful improvement for riders that the agency can move ahead with now.

Transit


Flexible passes could attract riders back to Metro. Will WMATA try them?

Metro can help riders, make its revenue more predictable, and encourage people to ride transit with a system of flexible passes. At a meeting Thursday, some board members will be pushing the agency give this idea a serious look.


Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

In many cities, frequent transit riders don't pay for every ride; they buy a monthly or weekly ticket and then think of transit as free. It's a good system and one that many people, including Michael Perkins in multiple articles for Greater Greater Washington, have been asking Metro to set up here.

I spoke with Mary Hynes, Arlington's representative on the WMATA Board, about the concept, which she supports.

Why are passes a good idea?

The basic idea of a pass is that a rider pays for a ticket whose price is close to the cost of taking one round-trip ride each weekday. That covers basic commuting, but then riders also get additional transit trips for free.

This is great for riders because extra mid-day trips on top of basic commuting don't cost more. But it's also good for the transit agency. Off-peak, the trains and buses aren't full, so it's not really costing more to transport someone at those times. While the agency loses out on revenue from those trips, it's likely to make some more through attracting riders.

Hynes thinks this could help encourage riders who've started abandoning Metro to give it another try. "We need to find a way to give riders a way to come back," she said. "The flex pass has that built into it, since you're buying a certain amount of service and then can ride for free.

Another big advantage to flex passes is that they would make the revenue more predictable, as the costs of running transit wouldn't change based on how many people are riding. This problem comes up some years and causes a sudden loss of revenue. For example, when the government shut down in 2011, Metro lost about $250,000 a day.

That would be far less if most federal workers were using a pass. The same goes for snowstorms and other unexpected disruptions. Riders might save a little money on normal months and pay a little extra (or, if they work for the government, the government might pay a little extra) in shutdowns and snowstorms, but this evens out everyone's costs.

Mobile phones, streaming video like Netflix, and many other services work the same way. You pay for your voice and data plan, not per minute. On average, it works out, but what you pay and what the phone company receives are more predictable.

Hynes said, "It's a win for the region because passes actually begin to maximize the use of the existing routes, and a win for the agency because it adds revenue predictability."

How would passes work?

Metro has some passes today. As Michael Perkins explained in 2010, when passes first started integrating with SmarTrip cards, the bus pass is fairly popular but the rail passes are less so.

A big reason is Metro's fares, which vary by distance. That means one pass at one price would either be a huge steal for long-distance riders or outrageously expensive for short-distance ones. Metro has two passes now, a full pass that gives unlimited rides anywhere, and a "short rail" pass that's only good for short trips. But most people don't use either of these.

Fortunately, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. In the Seattle area, they have many transit agencies with many fares, but one single pass, the Puget Pass.

The way this pass works is actually quite simple. Riders say what their regular commute is, and the system computes the regular fare. Then, it calculates a pass based on that fare which costs 36 times the one-way fare. With that pass, the rider can then take all trips of that price or less for free. If the rider takes a longer trip, he or she just pays the extra out of the cash balance on their ORCA card, the equivalent of our SmarTrip.

(If you thought to yourself, "Why not just have a flat fare?" you're asking something many new board members also ask. Here's a detailed explanation of why a flat fare is a bad idea. While some cities, like New York, do have a flat fare, Metro is very different; many trips on Metro would use commuter railroads in New York, which don't have a flat fare either. And we handle transfers differently too.)

Michael Perkins computed a detailed proposal for how to implement passes on Metro based on a few simple principles. He suggested a system like Puget Pass, plus a special "Just Add Bus" rate to add a bus pass onto a flexible rail pass.

What's the holdup?

At a recent meeting of the WMATA Board's finance committee, interim General Manager Jack Requa said that the agency was looking at this as part of the current budget cycle, Hynes said. The current budget proposal, however, remains vague on passes.

The agency should study, and pilot, a flexible pass system like what Perkins recommended. If they need the board's encouragement, members ought to ask about and push for this idea at the Thursday meeting where they will discuss the budget.

At least a few members of the board, including Hynes, have expressed interest in doing just that. She said, "I've been talking to other board members about it. I feel very strongly that is the fair way to do something equitably across the region. I want to see if [WMATA] can do a trial."

"If it's revenue positive, or even a tiny bit negative, we ought to do it," she added. "We ought to say to the riding public, 'We get it.'"

This is a good idea. This year's budget is an ideal time to set up this system, when Metro needs to find ways to bring riders back. This would be a terrific initiative for new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who's looking for quick ways, just like this, where he can make the experience better for riders and entice them to give Metro another try.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC