D.C. Metro’s “Peak of the Peak” Fare Is Step in Right Direction; Exit Fare Policy Steps Back

The Washington, D.C. Metro system has added a 20 cent surcharge, a “peak of the peak” fare, to travelers riding between 7:00 am and 9:30 am. This follows a 20 cent addition to fares during the afternoon rush instituted on August 3rd. This is a welcome change in fare policy and step toward congestion pricing on the transit sysem. (The next step should be to start pricing different lines based on demand.)

As any Metro rider knows, congestion is serious problem on trains during peak periods. Riders can easily miss trains because their frequency is unable to clear the platform. (Personally, I’ve missed three before at Gallery Place during the morning rush.) Adding the “peak-of-the-peak” fares moves Metro toward variable pricing to manage demand during these periods, a policy I advocated in the Washington Post (Jan 10, 2010). By pricing to manage demand, Metro can capture more revenue based on willingness to pay criteria and create a more sustainable revenue stream. It also should improve the quality of the ride for customers and put less stress on the operations of the system.

Unfortunately, this demand-driven fare policy is accompanied by an unnecessary move that will frustrate loyal, regular customers: Users of electronic SmarTrip cards will be required to ensure their cards are fully loaded for the fare before they exit. This policy seems to make sense on the surface, however, a rider with a SmarTrip card currently simply has their account go negative if he or she doesn’t have enough money on their card. This will be made up when they recharge the card. I doubt much revenue is actually lost to Metro because most SmarTrip card users are regular users and value the convenience of the card over paper tickets. As a SmarTrip card holder, I also find it difficult to track the total amount on the card, particularly when I’m scurrying to different meetings. (Although, my card has yet to go negative.)

So, I see the logic of requiring occassional paper ticket holders to make sure they have sufficient fare to exit a station, but SmarTrip users are a different customer. Metro should recognize the different constraints and conveniences these customers value. They’ve already paid extra to use the card anyway. I’m sure most users (including yours truly) are more than happy to pay the next time we charge up the card (but I don’t have access to the data to verify this).

My advice to Metro: Keep congestion pricing for fares; drop the mandatory exit fare sufficiency policy for SmarTrip users. Keep your customers happy by providing a better ride and a convenient way to pay for it without being late to work or their next meeting.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.