>WMATA the most expensive rail system in the US

>After a fairly comprehensive review of the fare and pass policies in place throughout the US, and my personal experience riding transit in Europe, I challenge anyone out there to name a rail transit system that costs more per month for the average commuter. The regular adult fare for up to a 12 mile commute one way, 40 times per month, during rush hour and using a form of payment commonly in use (i.e., no “Day Passes” since a commuter would more likely buy a weekly pass or monthly pass). If there is a reasonable monthly or annual pass suitable for commuting, you have to cite that too.

I’m going to list the systems that I checked out and the average and maximum fares in place currently:

Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Hudson-Bergen, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Newark, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco (MUNI), San Francisco (BART), San Jose.

The most expensive one-way cash or cash equivalent fare was for Oakland’s trans-bay bus service at $3.50 each way. However, you can buy a monthly pass for $116.00.

The average one-trip fare is $1.86 and the average monthly pass is $68.00. The median fare is 1.75 and monthly pass 61.75 (half are bigger, half smaller).

For almost every system I looked at, the rail system and bus system had the same fares and passes. There was not a peak fare and off-peak fare. According to a WMATA presentation I read (sorry I can’t provide a link), if metrorail had the same fare all the time for all rides, the fare would be $2.75. I pay $3.20 each way and the maximum charge is $4.50. While a monthly pass is not available, you could buy four weekly passes for $39.00 each, but that wouldn’t work on the buses, so that would be another four weekly passes (if necessary) for $11.00 each. Your total is $156 for rail passes only, or $200 a month for both rail and bus, compared to $68 for most other transit systems. Also, most other systems allow free transfers between rail and bus. WMATA only gives you a discount of $0.90 in one direction.

So WMATA’s system has the advantage of taking it easy on bus riders, short distance commuters and people who ride off-peak, while asking longer distance peak rail riders to pay more. I would argue that for reduction of congestion, energy use and pollution, giving the peak commuter a break would be of benefit, but the trains are already packed. I think the next best thing would be to implement the “commute and get the weekends free” policy of monthly passes.

So, someone find me a transit system that’s more expensive for a regular adult, 9-5, 12 mile commuter, when you use a fare or pass that makes sense for the purpose. I didn’t look at European transit systems, but you’re welcome to.


About perkinsms

I'm an engineer and father interested in transit, parking and economics.
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8 Responses to >WMATA the most expensive rail system in the US

  1. Dharm says:

    >It should be expensive. You live far out and take up floor space or a seat that could otherwise be sold multiple times. In addition, the further out you go the less intensively used (in terms of riders per mile) the lines are but the maintenance costs don’t necasserily go down. I ride three stations and pay $1.75 and per MILE I pay more than you. Distance based pricing makes eminent sense which is why it’s done on BART, in London, and Tokyo. The fact that the fares are high and the trains are still packed tells me from a purely economic perspective Metro could raise peak fares even more. Remember, a lot of peak period riders work for the federal government and are fully or partially subsidized for their public transit expenses.

  2. Michael says:

    >It’s a fair point. How do other systems like NYC or Chicago survive with their lower fare structure? Why haven’t they been moving to a more expensive system.WMATA decided to make the long rides more expensive and the short rides cheaper, which I’ll agree is better from an equity standpoint. But I’ll also note that even your “cheaper” shorter ride is more expensive than most other train systems. It’s only a little bit cheaper than NYC, and their price would pay for any length of trip.I think what’s going on is that the “recovery ratio” for WMATA is about double that of other systems, and I question whether that’s the best policy.

  3. Dharm says:

    >A couple of points. You can’t compare New York City with Washington. The overall density in New York City is higher and auto ownership is lower so without having to do anything they will be more efficient than Washington. Second, while WMATA’s rail cost recovery is the highest in the country among heavy rail systems, Metrobus last I checked is near the bottom (not only is the fare lower but Metrobus has amongs the most liberal transfer policies of major systmes) amongst its peers. What it averages out to is Metro recovering about 50% of its operating cost from riders, which while near the top of its peers isn’t extraordinarily high.So what you are saying, reading between the lines is that you’d like your fare lowered so we can stick the Metrobus riders with higher fares? I ask you, is that the righ thing to do from a equity perspective?

  4. Michael says:

    >If NYC has a more functional system as well as increased density and lower auto use, shouldn’t they have higher ridership for the same fare level and service costs and therefore a higher recovery ratio than DC?I think my big argument is that the recovery ratio is high compared to other systems, and that due to various structural issues with WMATA based on there not being a dedcated source of funds, the jurisdictions are not putting in as much into the system as in other locations, even though it provides a huge benefit for those jurisdictions in terms of congestion relief.I agree that for equity’s sake the bus system recovery ratio should probably stay where it is, but during the last round of fare increases, there was basically no increase for bus fares even though some of the biggest cost drivers were for labor (especially union labor in the form of bus operators and mechanics) and diesel fuel (which fuels buses as opposed to rail). I think the recovery ratio during the last round actually dropped for Metrobus and Metroaccess. The point was that the argument turned into rail vs. bus and peak vs. non-peak, but the real argument should have been riders vs. jurisdictions. Our complicated fare system allows this kind of infighting, a single fare for everyone is an argument between riders and subsidizing jurisdiction(s).WMATA increased fares primarily for peak rail riders when they could have made the decision to keep recovery ratios where they were and increase the jurisdiction contributions.In hindsight, with the rail system as clogged as it is, it would be hard to argue for lower peak fares. That’s why I primarily argue for better service during off-peak periods (shorter headways in the evening and on weekends), and for there to be a robust pass system so that people who pay full price to commute will be encouraged to use the system on the weekend or off-peak, too, by giving them free or reduced price travel during those times.

  5. Dharm says:

    >You are right about Metrobus and Metroaccess. What you’ve had over time as Metrobus and Metroacces fares have not gone up nearly as much as Metrorail fares the cross subsidy from Metrorail to Metrobus and Metraccess has increased. As for your contention about subsidies is a bit off though. I believe that Metro envisions that subsidies in FY09 will actually increase by 7%. The issue is that to keep Metrobus and Metroaccess fares low in the face of increasing costs, they simply increased the cost recovery on rail and kept the 50% overall cost recovery they are required to by various laws. Hypothetically, could subsidies have gone up more, absolutely yes. But in reality state and local governments are facing deficits and I think that’s unrealistic. What I proposed during the fare hearings last year was that rail, bus and Metroaccess cost recovery ratios be individually benchmarked against peer systems. Then a benchmark fare recovery ratio should be set (and that can take into account local factors such as Metrorail’s historically high fare recovery ratio) and fares should be adjusted periodically to keep these ratios in place. My arguments didn’t gain much traction because DC and Arlington have a vested issue in keeping bus fares low and NOBODY wants to pick on the poor disabled users of Metroaccess.While I agree with you in princpal that subsidies should go up, I also believe Metrobus and Metroaccess riders should not be held harmless from fare increases at the expense of Metrorail riders. I also agree with you on off peak rail service, but that will come with time. Metro has already increased service during the shoulders around the peak and no longer operates 4 car trains during the off peak. Soon, even the extra capacity afforded by 6 car trains will be exhausted by increasing ridership and frequencies will be adjusted. What I’d like but won’t see for budget reasons is a off peak frequency (particularily during the mid-day) designed to stimulate ridership instead of simply responding to ridership. Where they’ve tried this on the Metrobus side (PikeRide) it’s worked wonderfully so why not on the rail side?

  6. Michael says:

    >We should join forces to lobby together; it sounds like we’re on the same page. If you would or you know of a group that discusses these issues, please email me at michaelp (at) dodgit (dot) com (it’s an anonymizer, sorry. Haven’t decided to take off the mask yet).Why do you think other systems have monthly passes that are reasonable in price, and our system does not, even for buses?Are you sure service frequency will be adjusted when ridership increases, or will they go to eight car trains? I’ve tried to get WMATA to run trains more often, but it’s cheaper to just make the trains longer.Do other systems have a metroaccess-like service? I heard a while back that the service provided by MA is actually better than that required by law (will pick up folks who live more than the required distance from a stop or station), do you know if that’s true?What’s the comparison between how much the subsidy went up and the fare increases? I expect that the subsidy goes up every year, but the fare increases are not every year. If you kept track over a longer time period, what is the comparison?Which of the public comment periods did you attend? I went to the one in Arlington. I presented public comment but kinda freaked out on the podium and cut my remarks short. Mostly I presented my comments in writing.

  7. Wes says:

    >Why do you think other systems have monthly passes that are reasonable in price, and our system does not, even for buses?They disappeared in the first round of fare hikes in the early part of the decade. Back when bus fares were $1.10 ($2 for express routes), there was a $40 monthly pass for Metrobuses ($70 for full fare on both local and express buses). Also, there were combined bus and rail passes that cost $20 (short rail trip) and $30 (unlimited rail trip) a week — both paid full fare on both local and express buses. This probably still made Metro one of the more expensive systems out there, but those passes were nice to have. They were discontinued in 2001, I believe.

  8. Michael says:

    >I remember that, it was just after I came to DC. I remember they also raised fares about 10% as well as got rid of the bulk purchase bonus of 10%. Wow, they really worked hard that year to eliminate everything special they did for the people who commute every day.Although, with 8 out of the top 11 ridership days occurring within the past year, and 6 in the past two weeks, I don’t really blame them.Still waiting for more convenient weekly passes on Smartrip. Won’t save me any money on the commute, but my weekends would be free.

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