Metro rate-hike plan assailed as unfair to poor, disabled

Metro meeting (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

GREENBELT, Md. – At the first of six public meetings on a proposed Metro fare hike, several dozen people came to the Greenbelt Marriott to criticize the plan as punitive to the poor and disabled.

A majority of those who attended ride MetroAccess. Some were blind; others wheelchair-bound or otherwise handicapped. Others were reliant on the bus as a primary way to get around.

Under Metro’s proposal, fares on the rail lines would increase four percent, or about 10 to 20 cents per trip. Metrobus fares would go up from $1.60 to $1.85 with a Smartrip card, from $1.80 to $2.00 for cash. Express buses would jump from $3.65 to $4 and airport buses would go from $6 to $7. MetroAccess fares will increase in line with Metrorail and Metrobus, but fare costs are calculated per trip rather than a flat rate.

Parking would also increase 25 cents across the board and an additional 50 cents at Metro lots in Prince George’s County.

“Saving up for MetroAccess fares is like saving up for gas for a car. And a huge chunk of your monthly income, especially during the wintertime, goes to those MetroAccess trips,” says Rochelle Harod, who depends on the service.

Several members of the Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC), including Chairman Patrick Sheehan, testified before Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, Assistant General Manager Jack Requa and board members Alvin Nichols and Marcel Acosta.

“People who are transit-dependent are really having a difficult time. They cannot get in their vehicle. They are dependent on rail and bus. Keeping those fares low will help people get to work, get to school. I think we don’t need a fare increase right now,” says Sheehan.

Other members of the AAC pointed out some of the stark realities of those using MetroAccess.

“People are making choices where they go for chemotherapy, physical therapy, and they shouldn’t have to make those choices,” says Paul Semelfort.

Denise Rush says a fare increase in not right.

“MetroAccess people are those who are not working, who are sick. People [who] have to choose between going to dialysis and buying food or medicine,” Rush says.

Other attendees also pointed out how this plays into the larger regional and national picture.

“Look at what’s going on right now in regards to the minimum wage. We have a movement where the minimum wage is being increased. So the rate increase [on Metro], in some degree, undermines that for the people most in need of some relief. This is already one of the most expensive areas in the country to live in,” says Gus Griffin.

Raymond Colbert argues that Metro should find other ways to raise revenue, through advertising or deals with local attractions, rather than passing the bill onto customers.

“Why is that every time they need money, [they say] ‘Let’s raise fares on the customers’? As if that’s going to draw in more customers,” he says.

Metro did see a drop in ridership shortly after the last increase went into effect in the summer of 2012, with customers upset over the hikes.

The debate comes as Congress has cut the transit benefits for federal employees from $245 to $130 per month while increasing the parking benefits. Both Metro and AAA Mid-Atlantic are concerned the move will drive people back into their cars and clog already-congested interstates such as I-270, 66, 95 and the Capital Beltway. Federal employees make up more than half of the Metro ridership, so fare increases on top of the cuts in benefits could mean trouble.

Metro’s board of directors could make a final decision on whether to accept the fare increases or reduce them at its meeting in March. If approved, the fare hikes would take effect July 1.

Customers have several more chances to testify about the fare increases:

  • Thursday, Jan. 30
    Springfield Hilton
    6550 Loisdale Rd., Springfield, Va.
    Franconia-Springfield Metro (Blue Line) – 1.2 miles
  • Monday, Feb. 3
    Mathews Memorial Baptist Church
    2616 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, Washington, D.C.
    Anacostia Station (Green Line) – 0.3 miles
  • Tuesday, Feb. 4
    County Executive Office Building, Cafeteria
    101 Monroe Street, Rockville, Md. (entrance on Jefferson Street)
    Rockville Station (Red Line) – 0.2 mile
  • Wednesday, Feb. 5
    Central Library
    1015 N. Quincy Street, Arlington, Va.
    Ballston Station (Orange Line) – ¼ mile
  • Thursday, Feb. 6
    Jackson Graham Building (Metro Headquarters)
    600 Fifth Street NW, Washington, D.C.
    Gallery Place-Chinatown Station (Red, Green, Yellow Lines)

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Congress members call on Maryland to ‘reevaluate’ Purple Line bidder


Two members of Congress have asked Maryland transportation officials to “reevaluate” a firm bidding on a contract to build and operate the light-rail Purple Line because its majority owner once transported prisoners to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) wrote to Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr. on Jan. 27, asking for the review.

The company in question, Keolis, is a member of one of four consortiums recently chosen by Maryland transportation officials to bid on a public-private partnership to design, build, operate, maintain and help finance a 16-mile Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF), which owns 70 percent of Keolis, was paid to transport 76,000 prisoners to Nazi death camps in World War II, according to historians.

State officials have said they expect to choose a private partner on the $2.2-billion transit proposal by early 2015. The partnership likely would be a 35-year contract that could be valued at more than $6-billion, one of the largest contracts ever in Maryland. State officials also are seeking $900-million in federal grants and a low-interest federal loan as part of the public-private plan.

“If awarded, the State of Maryland’s contract with SNCF for the Purple Line may be paid out of the very pockets of taxpayers who the company once willingly transported to the death camps,” the letter said. “While we look forward to the innovative Purple Line, we do not believe that it should be done through the partnership of Keolis as an entity of SNCF until its victims are awarded their long overdue justice.”

The letter asks Smith “to take into consideration the relationship between Keolis and SNCF as it reviews finalists for the Purple Line.”

Keolis officials have said the company, which was founded in the late 1990s, had nothing to do with the Holocaust. SNCF officials have said the French government has paid billions in reparations to Holocaust victims and their families for deportations that occurred under the Nazi-backed Vichy government during World War II.

SNCF’s chairman issued a formal apology to Holocaust victims in 2011.

“I understand their feelings, and I respect their feelings,” ­Alain Leray, president of SNCF America in Rockville, has said of Holocaust survivors. “It’s a highly emotional issue. . . . If it’s a historical issue, let’s deal with it. If it’s a commercial issue, let’s deal with it. But mixing one with the other doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

Keolis first drew scrutiny in the Washington region in 2010, when a Holocaust survivors group protested its winning of an $85 million contract to operate Virginia Railway Express trains, its first U.S. rail contract. Earlier this month, Keolis won a $2.68 billion contract to operate its second U.S. system, Boston’s commuter rail. SNCF has no U.S. rail contracts, Leray said.

2011 Maryland law that requires companies bidding on state commuter rail (MARC) contracts to disclose any ties to the Holocaust targeted a Keolis bid to operate two MARC lines. That contract went to a lower bidder.

Last year, Maloney and Ros-Lehtinen introduced legislation that would allow Holocaust victims and their families to seek damages against SNCF in U.S. courts.

D.C. area’s longer-than-average commutes could be taking a greater toll on women

Adeyinka Ogunlegan remembers sitting at a red light on Georgia Avenue when the text-message alert came through. Her main route home to Laurel was blocked because of emergency utility repairs.

In an instant, her run-of-the-mill commute, a drive she does daily, generally without incident, turned into a logistical nightmare.

Her son, who is now 4, was waiting to be picked up at preschool, and her daughter, now 3, from the babysitter’s. The clock was ticking, traffic was crawling, and she still had at least 20 miles to go. She knew instinctively that a trip that normally takes her about an hour would take far more time unless she came up with a plan.

“I was like: ‘Oh my God. Oh my God,’ ” she recalled. “There was no bailout. It wasn’t pretty.”

Ogunlegan took a deep breath to keep herself from panicking. As her car idled, she could feel her blood pressure escalating. She checked Google Maps in hopes of finding a way out of the traffic jam. Ahead, she spied a few cars turning off onto side streets and decided to take a chance. She managed to navigate her way through side streets (thank you, GPS) to New Hampshire Avenue and from there to the Intercounty Connector, on which — for a fee — she sped to Laurel, arriving at her son’s school with a minute to spare.

Washington Post poll of area residents this past summer found that women and men who drive average a roughly 30-minute commute. But for about one in six women — about one-third of whom have children at home — that sometimes harrowing daily commute is getting longer. While D.C. area drivers are seeing less congestion on local roads, they still spend seven more minutes commuting each day than the average American, according to the Census Bureau.

Those lengthy rides could have implications for women’s health and stress levels, particularly because their commutes often include stops other than home and work. A growing body of research shows that when it comes to commute stress, women feel the impact more than men.

In a 2010 study, researchers in Britain found that women reported having higher stress levels related to commuting than men did — even if they had shorter commutes.

“The theory was that it was a question of flexibility in time use,” said Jennifer Roberts, a professor of economics at the University of Sheffield. For women, “there were more deadlines for where they had to be. It was not just an issue of, ‘I have to be at my desk at 9.’ It was, ‘I have to get my kids to child care. I have to pick up the dry cleaning.’ ”

Roberts and her colleagues found the impact was particularly acute for women with preschool-age children. Researchers found the psychological effect on them was four times as great as for men with children of the same age.

Add a longer commute into the equation and it could be even worse for women, Roberts said.

Rori Pollak, executive director at Little Beginnings Child Development Center, has seen more than her share of harried moms and dads flying through the doors of the Arlington County day care.

“Most are very apologetic,” she said. “The hardest part is really for the child if they’re the last one here.”

Like many day-care centers, Little Beginnings charges a fee for late pickups. Parents who are one to 15 minutes late pay $20, and the fee escalates from there. Those who have more than four late pickups within a certain time frame face possible dismissal from the center. But Pollak rarely has to enforce the rule.

Pollak said she and her staff understand the stresses and work closely with parents to ease the anxiety. For example, center officials encourage parents to have backup plans in the event of emergencies.

Independent travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin said women may find commuting more stressful because they tend to do more than just travel to and from work. They make additional stops — at the market, at day care, at the dry cleaner — a phenomenon known as “trip chaining.” Men, by contrast, are more likely to drive straight from work to home.

In her research, McGuckin, who has worked as a consultant to the Department of Transportation, found a difference in men and women’s attitudes about commuting.
“The commute for men is a moment of respite in the day, where they can sit and listen to the radio,” she said. “But I think, for women, it’s simply another tense, mind-racing trap because you should be somewhere or have just a few minutes to get to day care before you get charged.”

And despite women’s advances in the workplace and as wage earners, that dynamic has not necessarily changed.

“Though we see some changes in the younger generation, women still do the majority of housework and child care,” said McGuckin, who has examined the effects of commuting on men and women. “Commutes women do are more often populated with stops. And they’re more likely to do pickup in the afternoon.”

Federal statistics illustrate the disparity. Among households with two working parents who commute, women make more than half — 63.3 percent— of the trips for drop-off and/or pickup.

Ogunlegan, a lawyer at a Rockville-based public-affairs firm, is one of those women. The family has one car, and her husband takes a commuter bus and Metro to his job at the Commerce Department in downtown D.C., which means she is responsible for both drop-offs and pickups.

As a result, she has carefully calibrated her 50-mile daily drive. Mornings can be hectic, but it’s the drive home that is the real stressor.

“It can be crazy,” Ogunlegan said about her commute, which includes two drop-offs, at the babysitter’s and at school, before she heads to her office. “It’s just this juggling act that you have to manage.”

She knows that if she does not leave work at 5 p.m. on the dot, she risks missing the 6:15 p.m. pickup deadline at her son’s preschool. She’s had a couple of late pickups — including one when she was in such a rush, she couldn’t remember if she had even closed her car door. Center officials were understanding, but even so, she does not like to be late. She knows her son’s teachers have children, too.


“You feel bad,” she said. “You just don’t want to be that parent.”

Some women said that, when they are able, they’ve tried to make adjustments to their schedules and to the places they choose to work to ensure they can be close to where their kids are. But even then, they know they are just one snowstorm or traffic tie-up away from a late pickup.

Susan Burkinshaw, a comptroller who lives in Germantown, has turned down higher-paying jobs in the District and Virginia so she can work within a 10-mile radius of her children’s schools and avoid the frantic last-minute scramble that comes with traffic delays.

For Kellie Reynolds, a mother of two from Gaithersburg, pickup always felt stressful, particularly when her children were younger.

“I never wanted to pick them up late,” said Reynolds, who works for the Federal Drug Administration. “It wasn’t the [late fee]. It was thinking about how bad the kids would feel if it was closing time and I wasn’t there.”

For years, Reynolds handled afternoon pickup and shuttled the kids to doctor appointments and practices because she had a more flexible work schedule than her husband, who worked in Frederick, Md. But after he took a job in Rockville, she became the one with the longer drive. As a result, he is able to pitch in more often, easing some of the stress.

Some women also acknowledge that they may put more pressure on themselves.

“I think it’s just the way our brains are wired. [We’re] always planning our next event — the laundry, calling about the doctor’s appointment,” said Bridget Dunn, a mother of two from Alexandria. “I don’t know that men do the same thing. We get hung up on these kinds of things because we’re sort of the conductor. I think the stress lies in that.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.