Tuesday, December 26, 2006

WMATA considers 'congestion fares'

Washington DC - An Associated Press story in The Examiner reports that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is considering instituting 'congestion fares', better known as 'peak hour fares', to help reduce the $116 million budget gap the system has.

A congestion fare is being considered to help spread out the demand for WMATA services from peak periods to less busy times. By shifting a part of the crowd to less heavy travel times, WMATA hopes to increase the efficiency of some of the non-peak trips, eliminating overcrowding on peak trips as well as raking in more money from those that won't or can't change their travel times.

It is figured that if WMATA can shift 5% of it's peak hour patronage to the fringe periods of just before and after the peak period, overcrowding issues could be eliminated for awhile at least.

There is a gamble in doing such a move at many transit systems. With WMATA, the gamble is less due to more captive riders that enter the congested zones of Washington DC. Due to parking issues and greater parking expenses than in many other cities, what many would call a choice rider elsewhere are more or less a captive rider on WMATA. It is important to note that this particular type of captive rider still can abandoned transit far easier than a true captive rider.

Many critics of peak hour fares consider the increased cost as a punishment to those that choose to ride. Critics charge that it drives away ridership and is more of a cash grab by the system than tool to use to equalize demand and eliminate overcrowding. In many cases they are correct. Peak fares do punish the rush hour ridership and do keep some from riding but there is a flip side to it as well.

Transit systems are designed around the peak period. While off peak carries far less in terms of ridership, transit systems need to be set up for peak period which is the bulk of their ridership and where most of the fare box revenue comes from. To be set up for peak period service means more employees, more vehicles and more cost to operate the system. Even a bus or rail vehicle that is just sitting at the depot costs the transit system money.

That is part of the reason that various transit systems across the country have charged peak fares at one time or another from as far back as the days of the horse cars. It costs more to run peak service than it does to run off-peak since you have to have the additional infrastructure in place to handle peak periods.

While higher ridership tends to offset the higher operating costs, it doesn't offset enough of the costs. With fuel, insurance, wage and other associated costs continuing to rise, the offset between revenues and expenses continues to grow.

This is where a balance needs to be struck between off peak and peak service. Tough ridership standards need to be implemented where if a route doesn't meet its minimum ridership numbers, it needs to be cut. Too often, transit systems tend to chop the peak service and leave the unproductive off peak service alone. That trend has to stop.

If your going to charge a peak fare, riders will be less tolerant of route cuts in peak periods. In addition, riders will hold the peak service to a higher level which most transit systems these days can't meet. Riders will be even less tolerate of missed trips, crowding, etc.

To impose a peak fare requires the transit system to look at peak periods differently. This is because your now operating more or less two different operations. In a standard fare system, your just adding more vehicles for peak periods. In a peak fare system, your not only adding more vehicles but also a different fare structure and having to adjust routes more often for services like express and limited stop routes.

In some cases, peak fares actually generate more costs for the transit system in order to hold the ridership. A general rule of thumb is that for each 25 cent increase in fare, you lose around 5 percent of your ridership. This holds true with peak fares and to try and keep that peak ridership which the transit system depends on, the transit system usually ends up spending more money in various improvements such as extra buses or creating new express routes.

While WMATA hasn't decided if they are going to do the congestion charge yet, I suggest they look very closely at the issue before making the decision. It is still a gamble and if they lose the gamble, they could end up losing more money and ridership than if they just did an across the board fare increase.

Personally, I don't think the congestion charge will do what WMATA thinks it will.

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