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Washington's Metro Could Use a Dose of Congestion Pricing

Samuel Staley
January 10, 2010, 6:36pm

As a frequent rider of Washington, D.C.'s metro system, I've been more than inconvenienced by the rush hour traffic that has forced me to miss trains. Usually this occurs while I'm switching trains at Gallery Place or Metro Center. The solution, of course, is congestion pricing--raising fares so that the trains run efficiently and at maximum capacity. I make this case in today's (Sunday 10 January) Washington Post.

The key to the DC Metro's (and transit more generally) future financial viability is adopting congestion pricing. The key, I write, is to "charge the right fare, for the right trip, at the right time through demand-based pricing." More specifically:

"Metro already uses a variable pricing system in a limited way. Fares vary based on distance and whether or not it is rush hour; express buses charge more than local ones. But these measures are not enough to optimize the system’s performance. Much more could be achieved by using the latest technology.

"Metro can take pricing to the next level with demand-based fares focused on ensuring peak performance for both rail and bus. The key policy change would be to identify which routes are congested and authorize pricing levels by route and time of day, rather than mode.

"The opportunities are particularly ripe for rail, which accounts for two-thirds of system trips and nearly 80 percent of passenger miles. An average 10 percent increase in revenue from the rail side of Metro alone could fill the $40 million gap."

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is facing a $40 million deficit. Raising fares across the board could actually make matters worse because it would be a short-term, stop gap measure, not a solution that focuses on long-term sustainability. Dynamic, variable fares, on the other hand, focus on charging based on willingness to pay. Thus, the overcrowded trains are also a potential revenue opportunity.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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