Metro has yet to determine whether it is violating a federal civil rights law by placing undue burden on its poor and minority riders with a proposed fare increase.

Riders are already crying foul, especially those who use MetroAccess and who are disproportionately minority and low-income. A proposal to charge much higher rates for those who use paper cards also would hurt poor riders, advocates say.

The issue is Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Transit agencies that receive federal funds must show that fare increases do not discriminate against minorities.

Who rides Metro
ModeTotal annual trips% minority tripsTotal minority trips% low-income tripsTotal low-income trips
Source: Metro

If it doesn't, the agency could be forced to scale back the fare proposal, find needed money elsewhere or cut service.

Metro officials said they plan to review whether the fare proposal made last month adheres to the law.

Two accessibility rights advisory committees also are looking into the effects of the fare proposal, according to Wendy Klancher, who runs one committee for the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

Metrobus and MetroAccess have a much greater concentration of poor and minority riders than Metrorail. While just over half of Metrorail riders are minorities, three-quarters of Metrobus and MetroAccess riders are minorities, according to Metro. And 14 percent of Metrorail riders are low-income, compared with 52 percent of MetroAccess riders and 42 percent of Metrobus riders.

MetroAccess riders are already hurting after Metro raised their fares in February 2011, making trips cost twice as much as a comparable rail or bus trip, up to $7 per one-way trip. For many, that doubled fares and created a complicated system with unpredictable costs.

Ridership has since dropped.

Now Metro is proposing higher bus and rail fares, which would cause higher MetroAccess fares, too. The cap on a one-way MetroAccess fare could rise to $7.40, making a round trip nearly $15.

Regina Lee, a disability rights activist, said she knows MetroAccess riders who have had to change churches because the trips became too expensive.

Now, she said, even people with full-time federal jobs and federal transit benefits are wondering how they can afford to work. She says she may need to curtail her own volunteer work.

Metro is also considering a proposal that would charge those who use paper cards as much as $6 per one-way rail trip, no matter how far they travel. A local bus trip would jump from $1.70 to $2 per one-way trip for cash-paying riders.

SmarTrip cards cost $5, not including any fare. That's too much for some people to afford up front while putting money on their cards, Lee said.

"See, you're back again penalizing the elderly, disabled and low-income," she said. "You're actively hurting them even more."

Lee and other advocates are trying to galvanize riders to attend yet-to-be-scheduled public hearings on the proposed increases.

"Not that many of us are going to be able to afford $14 fare round trip to be able to get there," said MetroAccess rider Kathi Spray.