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As GWU students get unlimited transit deal, Metro wants more colleges on board

Students pay a mandatory fee for the passes, and many area schools have balked

The Foggy Bottom Metro station on the campus of George Washington University. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
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For three weeks this month, thousands of students at the largest university in the nation’s capital are getting a sweet transit deal: free rides on Metro.

But starting in January, full-time George Washington University undergraduates and eligible full-time graduate students will each pay a mandatory $100 fee for a special pass that allows unlimited rail and bus rides through the spring semester. The move will enable students to take full advantage of the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro station at the core of their D.C. campus.

GWU, which will contribute additional funds to help cover the cost, announced the deal with Metro in early November. It joins American University and other schools with D.C. satellite campuses as a participant in the University Pass program.

How many colleges and universities operate in D.C.? More than you think.

Now, talks are underway between Metro and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area on tweaks to the program that could get more schools on board.

“I strongly believe that one of the things that makes the D.C. region America’s greatest college town is our wonderful Metro transit system, and the U-Pass program could be a tremendous asset in maximizing that asset,” Andrew Flagel, the consortium’s president and chief executive, said in an email. “I am delighted that [Metro] is working with us to reevaluate their model to explore how adding additional area institutions would allow us to bring the costs of the program down.”

So far, many schools in the District and its suburbs have balked at those current costs. Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire said she doesn’t want her school to be charged for every full-time student regardless of whether those students use Metro. Like Catholic University, also a nonparticipant, Trinity Washington is near the Brookland-CUA station on the Red Line.

“We were not the only university that found it unattractive,” McGuire said. “Some of us do not like applying mandatory fees when we cannot justify that every student would benefit.”

She said the university frequently helps students pay for transportation. One school official, she said, keeps a stash of Metro cards for those with emergency needs.

Flagel said his goal is to bring the cost of the U-Pass down enough to open it up to all institutions in the consortium “and through them to all our area students.” The consortium represents schools in D.C. and nearby, including large community colleges, the University of Maryland and George Mason University.

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Metro says that U-Pass costs the equivalent of $1 a day per student for a semester of unlimited transit service. The tens of thousands of part-time students in the area are excluded.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said U-Pass is modeled after similar programs across the country. Industry “best practices,” she said, limit participants to full-time students. “The model enables Metro to provide unlimited rides to students without significant revenue loss,” she said.

Starting in March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic rocked both Metro and higher education, and the impacts are still being felt. While college campuses largely resumed normal operations this fall, Metro ridership overall has not recovered. Pre-pandemic data showed that U-Pass generated more than 2 million trips and $5.4 million in revenue for Metro from August 2016 to April 2018.

American University, with about 10,000 full-time students, was the first to try U-Pass in 2016. Since then, numerous universities based far from the District, including Arizona State and the University of Texas, have participated to help students attending satellite campuses in the city.

GWU’s U-Pass debuted Wednesday. The university enrolls 27,000 students, including about 10,000 full-time undergraduates and several thousand full-time graduate students. Eligible students will get three free weeks of service through Dec. 22 and then pay a $100 flat fee for unlimited rides during the term that begins Jan. 10.

Brandon Hill, 21, a senior from Waldorf, Md., who is the GWU student association president, said he used his U-Pass the first day for a quick trip from Foggy Bottom to McPherson Square to visit a friend, a round trip that ordinarily would have cost $4.

“I’m looking forward to taking full advantage of it,” Hill said. He said students have long pushed for U-Pass to help them to get to internships, restaurants, museums, events or other destinations. It’s “enormously ideal because of where we are positioned in the city,” he said.

A few who don’t use Metro very much are concerned about the expense, Hill noted, but a large majority “are super excited to use the program.”

GWU President Thomas LeBlanc said in a statement that students “made a compelling case about the importance of providing access to an affordable transportation option, whether to travel to and from campus and internships or to explore more of the nation’s capital and greater region.”

In a region with a plethora of campuses, many Metro stations take their names in part from universities. The Red Line has the Van Ness-UDC station, for the University of the District of Columbia. The Green and Yellow lines have the Shaw-Howard U and College Park-U of MD stations. Two Orange Line stations tie GMU into their names. Yet none of those schools has signed up for U-Pass.

McGuire, the Trinity Washington president, said she would keep an open mind. “If Metro wants to come back and offer a better deal, fine,” she said.

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