A front-page article in the March 29 Washington Post features the work of PRISCM and TEN in a compelling story about the cost of transportation inequity for communities of color and low-income people.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; A01
Metro's proposal to raise fares would disproportionately affect commuters who depend on bus transportation and are least able to pay, according to outraged bus riders whose complaints are backed by Metro data.
Rail passengers, who face a 15 percent increase in fares, have a median income of $102,000; 75 percent are white, 18 percent are unemployed, and one in 50 lives in a household without a car.
Bus riders face a 20 percent rise in fares. They have a median annual income of $69,000; 50 percent are minorities, 23 percent are unemployed, and one in five has no car in the household, according to a Metrobus rider profile from 2007, the latest such data available.
Metro officials, facing a historic $189 million operating shortfall come the fiscal year that starts July 1, say raising fares and reducing service are a last resort. But officials said they are hard pressed to avoid those steps because of revenue shortfalls in the jurisdictions that fund Metro operations. To fill the gap, Metro is proposing $94 million in fare increases and almost $34 million in service cuts for bus and rail to help close the gap.
To close this year's gap of $40 million, Metro last month imposed a 10-cent surcharge on bus and rail fares, and some riders say they are stretched thin.
Crystal Washington, a mother of six, is a bus rider who doesn't own a car. She relies on buses for her 90-minute commute between Temple Hills and L'Enfant Plaza, and her children rely on the bus to go to church, school, the mall and the library.
"It's ridiculous," Washington said as her bus headed southeast over the Anacostia River. "A fare increase would impact me greatly."Bus vs. rail
The fare increases proposed in Metro's 2011 budget are proportionally greater for bus than for rail. The proposal calls for raising the peak period bus boarding charge by 20 percent, from $1.25 to $1.50, and raising the peak period rail boarding charge by 15 percent, from $1.65 to $1.90.
The bus-riding population stands to suffer more than rail users because it tends to rely more heavily on public transit, Metro board member Jim Graham (D.C.) said in an interview Friday. "What it boils down to is, how hard will we hit those most transit-dependent and least able to pay? They have fewer options and less money," said Graham, who has pressed Metro staff members to provide more details on the impact of possible fare increases and service cuts.
For the first time, Metro is using Census Bureau and other data to identify the impact of fare and service changes on minorities and households without automobiles, under a mandate from the Federal Transit Administration, said Jim Hamre, Metro's acting director of bus planning. That evaluation is not completed, he said.
Metro's last major fare increase -- the largest in its history -- took effect in January 2008, raising rush-hour subway fares by 30 to 75 cents, depending on the length of the trip, and increasing parking fees by 75 cents. Bus fares increased a dime, but only for passengers who pay cash; it remained $1.25 for customers who pay with SmarTrip cards.
Metro Board member Chris Zimmerman of Arlington County played down the importance of the relative increase in bus vs. rail fares, calling it "a distraction." "To minimize the impact on the lower-income, we need to not cut service and get the jurisdictions to mitigate the impact of the fare increases," he said.Residents protest
Hundreds of residents and activists concerned about the severity of the impact of the budget cuts assembled this month at Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Capitol Heights, vowing to lobby for equity in transportation.
"We don't want to polarize bus riders versus Metro riders," said the Rev. Sylvia Bullock, a community organizer. But, she said, she is concerned that given the proposed changes to fares and service, "the inequity will fall disproportionately to minorities."
"On the bus, you are sitting next to women who work two jobs and go to school . . . and many who earn minimum wages," she said at the meeting, organized by the Partnership for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland and the Transportation Equity Network, a coalition of community organizations advocating equal public transit access.
Theresa Bryant, who lives in Forestville near FedEx Field, said she depends on the bus for medical appointments, shopping and other errands.
"The Metro system was able to get millions of people to the Obama inauguration . . . but I can't get to church because the F14 does not run on Sunday," Bryant said. "I believe that Metro should . . . expand services."
Others have formed informal transportation networks, either because they cannot afford bus fares or because service is too limited.
Raimon Jackson, 28, youth director at Gethsemane, said he and his girlfriend, Vanessa Gibson, have formed an "underground railroad" to ferry dozens of young people to church on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.
Jackson said he regularly piles as many as eight people at a time into his black Nissan Maxima for the trips to church. He starts his pickups at least 90 minutes before services to get all 35 youths who attend, and the gas money comes out of his pocket.
"People can't get transportation here, there are not enough frequent stops or the youth don't have the money to take [public] transportation," he said. "If they hike fares 10 or 20 percent, there is no way they will be able to afford to get on the train or bus."
Jim Hughes, Metro's director of strategic planning, said service reductions and fare increases are virtually inevitable, given the agency's financial woes. Ridership has dropped, and fuel and labor costs continue to rise, he said.
"The jurisdictions are struggling," he said.
Cuts up for debate
Metro officials have identified about $50 million in possible service cuts, and the general manager's proposal would cut $34 million in services. That's to provide room for public debate and input from member jurisdictions over the choices, Hughes said.
Hamre, Metro's acting director of bus planning, said that to identify the bus routes for cuts, analysts rank each one according to several factors, including ridership, how much each trip is subsidized, and measures of revenue per passenger and per mile. The agency also tries to reduce overlaps in service and at times will accept greater crowding or buses that run less frequently on higher-performing routes, he said.
"Our goal is to preserve the system and impact the fewest riders," Hamre said, as well as to make service cuts equitable so that "we are not picking on one jurisdiction."
That's no consolation to Crystal Washington.
Her six children, ages 6 to 19, depend on the bus to get everywhere. Washington used to stretch $20 for a couple of weeks for the children's trips.
"Now she can't," said her son Charleston Pinkney, 19. "We can only spread that money so thin," he said as he ate a bowl of instant noodles in the living room. Their modest Temple Hills home is lined with packing boxes because Washington's landlord went into foreclosure and the family has to move.
To save money, Washington spends 90 minutes and $2.10 taking the Metro 71 bus, the 34 bus down Pennsylvania Avenue and finally the Prince George's County 32 bus to get home. By rail, her commute would take only half an hour but would cost almost twice as much.
"If we took the subway from L'Enfant Plaza to Naylor Road, we would have been there half an hour ago. But it costs $4 each way," she said.
On the way home, her cellphone rings repeatedly as her children wonder where she is. "If I get home late, they aren't where they should be," she said. "They won't have finished their homework, they will be on the TV and Facebook, and I have to regain order."
As Washington steps off the last bus of her day, her children run through a nearby park and race toward her, asking for ice cream money. She has saved enough with the long commutes to give them a few dollars. But she wishes she had more choices.
"I'll stick with [buses] because of the money," she said.[Photo credit: Mark Gail/The Washington Post]