Metrorail Fares Are Complicated, For Good
Metrorail’s distance-based fare structure is the most equitable.
Metrorail is one of only three heavy rail systems in the United States with distance-based fares. (BART and PATCO are the other two.) And to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only one with peak and off-peak fares. With 86 stations (soon to be 91) and two fare time-periods (it used to be three), the average rider has a large number of possible fare combinations.
The benefits of Metrorail’s existing fare structure are many-fold, but chief among them are equity, efficiency, and economics.
The fare structure is fair. Distance-based and time-of-day fares allow transit riders to pay fares in proportion to the level of service they’re using. Peak period riders pay more and have more frequent service. Short distance travel is less expensive than long-distance. With flat fares, those who take short trips subsidize those who take longer trips, and people who ride during times of reduced service subsidize those who ride during the peaks when trains are most frequent. With zone-based fares, customers taking short trips that cross a zone boundary pay a larger fare than other customers taking longer trips entirely within a zone boundary.
The fare structure is equitable. A switch from distance-based to flat-fare that was revenue neutral (not losing money) would raise a Title VI equity concern. Planning staff have done a preliminary analysis, and such a switch would have a disproportionate burden on low-income riders. A switch to flat fares that was not revenue neutral would result in higher subsidies from Metro’s funding partners
The fare structure promotes economic efficiency. People use resources more efficiently if they’re priced to reflect the value of the resource. Economists love variably priced roads like the Intercounty Connector (MD-200) and the I-495 Express Lanes, as the per-mile prices are set to keep traffic flowing. The same concept applies to Metrorail’s distance-based and peak/off-peak fares.
While Metro is seeking ways to improve the network to allow more passengers to ride the system, in the near term the pricing structure incentivizes users to travel the region’s transit and roadway systems efficiently. With all of these good reasons for distance-based fares, it’s not surprising that some are discussing the possibility for other heavy rail systems to switch from flat fares to distance-based.
The introduction of the SmarTrip smartcard-based fare medium has created more opportunities to ease the fare-payment process, including SmartBenefits and autoload. Customers simply tap-and-go. Now that SmarTrip cards cost only $2 — the same cost as two $1 surcharges for using paper farecards — choosing plastic over paper is cost-effective for everyone.
What do you think of Metrorail’s distance-based fares? Can you think of other reasons to keep our distance-based fare?