Virginia Railway Express officials are considering raising fares by 10 percent or more next year in what would be the largest percentage increase in the commuter line’s history.

VRE raised fares by 3 percent last month, but officials said additional money is needed to help offset high fuel costs and the loss of $25 million in annual funds from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which had its taxing powers taken away by a February state supreme court ruling.

The proposed January increase would help offset a projected $1.6 million shortfall in VRE’s operating budget for the current fiscal year.
The local jurisdictions that fund VRE, struggling in the wake of a national housing crisis that has depleted county property tax revenues, cannot contribute more than they already do to the commuter rail system, officials said.

The VRE operations board last week rejected a proposal to advertise a 7 percent January rate increase after staff warned them an additional increase of 3 percent or more could be needed just six months later.

“We’re trying to do a little bait and switch here, and I don’t think the public are going to like it,” board member Matt Kelly said.
A 10 percent increase would cost passengers who ride from Fredericksburg to Union Station an additional $25.20 a month. Manassas to Union Station passengers would pay an extra $20.80 monthly.

The board asked staff to prepare a proposal that includes one comprehensive fare increase, with the potential for staggering it over the next year, as well as options for cutting the budget by reducing service.

“I don’t like fare increases,” board member Chris Zimmerman said. “I’ve always said it’s the second-worst thing you can do — the first is service cuts.”

Presenting the public with a list of services that would be eliminated if there were no fare increase could help prepare passengers to accept a rate hike, Zimmerman said.

“People are going to scream at us, but we need to start the screaming as soon as possible because we need to start the education process about the tough choices we have to make,” he said.

VRE, like public transit systems throughout the nation, is seeing record-breaking ridership, logging its second-highest ridership day Aug. 12 in what is usually the second-slowest month for the rail system.

Any service reductions in the system would likely begin in the middle of the day, when ridership is lowest, VRE Chief Executive Dale Zehner said.

The board is scheduled to review a staff proposal next month and hold public hearings on the plan later this year.