Taking a stand for better rides

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Faith-based group advocates for convenient, cheap Metro access

A faith-based coalition, whose members include area residents faced with long commutes and possible fare hikes, called on Prince George's County leaders Monday to make accessible and affordable public transit a priority.

Members of the Partnership for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland, or PRISCM, held its "Turning Stories Into Action" forum at Capitol Heights' Gethsemane United Methodist Church, where members shared frustrating commutes and disapproval over possible fare increases on Metrorail and Metrobus.

PRISCM is a coalition of mostly churches that advocates on behalf of social issues such as unemployment and health care. Members come from churches as far north as Bowie and as south as Sunderland in Calvert County.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has proposed the fare increases to help reduce the system's $190 million deficit, said Elizabeth Hewlett, who represents Prince George's County on the Metro Board of Directors.

Hewlett told the crowd that Metro will seek federal money to maintain services and that the proposed fare hikes were not final and public hearings are required before any decision could be made.

The first and only Prince George's County WMATA public hearing on the proposed increases will be held March 29 in Lanham. A decision will not be made until late April or May, Hewlett said after the meeting.

Proposed fare changes for fiscal 2011 beginning July 1 include increasing Metrorail peak-hour fares from $1.65 to $2 and off-peak fares from $1.35 to $1.65, as well as increasing Metrobus boarding charges from $1.35 to $1.70 paid by cash and from $1.25 to $1.60 paid by SmarTrip card, according to the WMATA Web site.

On Feb. 28, fares increased by 10 cents for Metrobus, Metrorail and Metro Access, a door-to-door pick-up service for residents unable to access rail or bus, according to the WMATA Web site. The increase will last through June 26.

Following songs and introductions, county residents who are also PRISCM members testified about lengthy commutes and long waits for service.

Fred Jones of Cheverly, who is blind and requires a walking stick, said his Metro Access ride has sometimes been 90 minutes to two hours late to pick him up and take him to his job at Prince George's Community College. He said he has been left to wonder whether his ride was going to come at all.

"If Rosa Parks had trouble getting on the bus, what about for those of us who can't see the bus?" Jones said.

Theresa Bryant of Landover said she uses the bus for errands and medical appointments but cannot rely on Metro to get to her church, Mt. Calvary Catholic Church in Forestville.

"The Metro system was able to get millions of people to the Obama inauguration, but I can't get to church because the F14 [bus] doesn't run on Sundays," Bryant said.

U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Dist. 4) of Fort Washington declined to sign a PRISCM goal banner that said she would ultimately meet with PRISCM leaders by May 15 to report on her progress in achieving safe and quality transportation.

However, she said she consistently pressed for transit-oriented development surrounding Metro stations whenever she met before the General Services Administration, an independent management agency of the federal government.

Edwards said the service complaints she heard, particularly about Metro Access, were "unacceptable" but said it was better to work together to improve Metro instead of casting blame.

"There are people who take public transportation because they have to," Edwards said. "We have a need to make sure we have a Metro system that is reliable for our commuters."

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-What: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority public hearing for Prince George's County residents on proposed Metrorail and Metrobus fare increases

-When: 7 p.m. March 29

-Where: Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 5120 Whitfield Chapel Road, Lanham