The InTowner
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From the Publisher's Desk...

WE NEED TO BITE THE BULLET AND FIX METRO’S MONEY WOES NOW

A large fare increase for rail and bus looms, there is no way to avoid this. It is regrettable and could have been avoided if board members in the past had been willing to base their decisions regarding the setting of fares by following sensible business standards rather than reacting in typical politician fashion –- which is to do anything to make it seem that people aren’t being asked to pay more for services. (That is why we never have tax increases, just new user fees or other gimmicks such as cutting back on services, often by stealth.)

So, we have gone several years without fare increases and up until now the politicians who really run Metro have been able to proudly announce how they have been saving all of us money by not raising fares! Of course, the only way to offset this largesse has been to scrimp on maintenance and in various service areas. But during the past year the chickens have come home to roost, as it were: both rail and bus passengers have been complaining –- legitimately –- about breakdowns, poor service and other failures of various sorts. Initially, Metro management seemed to simply try to pass this off as a result of an “aging” system. Baloney. As others have pointed out, London, Paris, Boston, New York have been running their systems for over 100 years, and while those truly are “aging” they are nowhere near as seemingly deceased as our system is beginning to feel.

We are impressed with our new general manager; we admire his willingness to confront the issues head on and not try to sugar-coat. At the moment he is trying mightily to make his board –- and the riding public — understand that some “tough love” is required before things will get better. And that “tough love” is a big fare hike.

Now, don’t misunderstand us; we want to make it abundantly clear that we are not at all pleased at the prospect of a large fare hike. However, we recognize that if there is to be any prospect of righting Metro’s fiscal ship, we must face up to the need now –- not next month and certainly not next summer as many would have: that would only put off the inevitable and further exacerbate the problem. We believe GM Catoe is correctly warning us that if we allow a delay in implementing a fare hike past January until next summer we will only be faced with ending up paying double the fare increase than we otherwise would if we start with it at the beginning of the year.

Of course, what should have been done all along –- and this brings us back to our thought about politicians looking at these matters not as business people (and a transit system is really a business enterprise even though it is one that serves the public interest). Our view is that every year there should have been a small increase reflecting the increase in the consumer price index. Had that been done all along then we would have been faced with small increases of maybe a nickel or dime at a time. Trade and professional associations raise dues regularly to keep up with inflation and so do restaurants and retailers and even newspaper advertising departments.

Customers expect small, annual price increases and accept these as inevitable; they realize it to be a fact of life in a modern and dynamic economy. What they –- and that includes us and all of you –- resent is when it is proposed that they/we get socked with a massive increase. Very bad PR indeed. So, we will be supportive of a big increase this year on two conditions: (1) the board permit Catoe to implement it in January rather than next summer so as to avoid the increase being even more onerous and (2) that the board pledge to adjust fares each year to track with the consumer-price index so that we are never again confronted with the need for a massive increase because the politicians assumed they were doing us a favor by having no increases whatsoever.

And, while the politicians are going about getting Metro’s house in order at this time, we would also demand that they get serious about breaking the logjam regarding the issue of dedicated funding for Metro from each of he primary participating jurisdictions. The last we heard, the feds are prepared to pony up some real money for needed infrastructure improvements and other needs but only if and when the local jurisdictions guarantee dedicated sources of funding not subject to shifting legislative winds. We heard much about how outrageous it was that Maryland Governor Ehrlich’s appointed representative to the Metro board was fighting this plan. But where is Maryland on this issue now that Ehrlich is long gone? We haven’t heard a peep. And what about Virginia and DC? Let the powers-that-be put this matter truly on a fast track and in so doing they can ensure ultimate fiscal stability and genuine improvements in service and reliability in the years to come.