On a recent afternoon, Ronald Thompson Jr. was headed home to Anacostia from his job at a car rental business in Potomac Yard, where he drives vehicles to and from a maintenance shop.
Thompson is one Metro rider for whom paying fares can be a struggle. He has about $1,000 left to pay off after a fall landed him in the emergency room with a concussion. He’s also saving up to attend Northern Virginia Community College in the fall, and he’d like to get his cellphone fixed.
So, after having just spent $2 to get on a Metroway bus to the Pentagon City station, it hurt to have to pull out his SmarTrip card again to pay another $2.25 for the train ride home.
It’s all one trip, he said, but unlike many other major transit systems in the U.S., Metro makes people who have to transfer from a bus to a train — or the other way around — pay twice. Although Metro does give a 50-cent discount when switching between buses and trains, about $22.50 of the roughly $42 that Thompson pays each week to travel to and from work goes to transfers.
The “WMATA tax,” as Thompson calls Metro’s practice of charging for transfers, hits hardest for lower-income people for whom paying once is difficult, let alone twice. Partial relief came last week, when Metro took a step toward making Metrobus transfers free for riders, but only those who buy rail passes.
Pass holders previously had to pay separately for Metrobus rides to and from rail, but as of July 1, those with a pass, such as a monthly plan with unlimited rail trips, now also get unlimited Metrobus rides. Those taking other bus lines, such as the Montgomery County Transit Service or Fairfax Connector, still have to pay.
The move, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld predicted in a news release, will “attract new riders and benefit current customers.” However, the program will only help some.
Critics question the fairness of giving free transfers only to those who can afford the upfront cost of buying a pass.
For many, like Thompson, that won’t bring much relief.
According to Metro’s fare calculator, linking free transfers to buying passes appears to primarily help those with long train rides. For example, a rider who has to commute by bus and train back and forth between Vienna and Capitol South would normally pay $75 a week in fares, factoring in Metro’s 50-cent discount for bus transfers.
However, beginning July 1, those buying unlimited rail rides with a $58 weekly pass began saving about $17 by getting unlimited free bus rides.
But because Thompson takes shorter trips, he’d get a $38 weekly short-trip pass, also with unlimited train and now bus rides, meaning he’d save just $4 a week.
To be sure, those paying the most in fares for longer rides will save the most. But, Thompson said, he needs help too. He’s already scrimping as much on transportation as he can.
On his way home on the Metroway that day, he didn’t budge as the Crystal City station came and went. The bus costs the same regardless of how far he goes, so he stayed on as it crawled through traffic for another 10 minutes to the Pentagon City station, where the train ride would be shorter.
“It’s just a little cheaper this way,” he said.
Thompson could save more under Metro’s program if he could afford a monthly pass.
The price depends on the distance of the train ride. According to the Metro calculator, he’d pay only $99 monthly, saving $71 over paying for individual trips. The catch is he doesn’t usually have $99 lying around.
That’s the problem with giving discounts through passes, said Ben Fried, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a New York nonprofit that studies public transportation. “It stands to reason that lower-income riders will be less likely to pay the larger upfront cost of an unlimited pass,” he said.
A 2016 New York study by the nonprofit Community Service Society, for example, found only 18% of low-income New Yorkers bought that city subway system’s 30-day passes, compared with 38% of moderate- and higher-income people.
The person commuting between Vienna and Capitol South would save even more with the monthly pass — about $114. But they’d have to come up with the $216 fee upfront to get the free bus transfers.
Cities like Dallas and Portland, Ore., have tried giving free trips after someone has paid the equivalent of the discounted cost of a monthly pass through single fares. Metro spokesman Ian Janetta said Metro doesn’t have the technology to do the same.
Thompson said Metro could just simply stop charging for all transfers. It would save him $20 a week.
The idea has been suggested by a task force examining ways to improve bus service, and Metro is studying it, Janetta said.
David Alpert, president of Greater Greater Washington, said linking transfers to passes falls short of making all transfers free, as the civic group has called for. The group has noted that New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles’ transit systems do not charge for transfers, and others, like Philadelphia and Chicago, have larger transfer discounts. Philadelphia charges $1 for transfers, a $1.50 discount from its regular $2.50 fare. Chicago charges only 25 cents for transfers.
"But it’s a start,” Alpert said.
Metro’s changes come at a time when New York is giving half-priced fares to about 50,000 low-income residents and Seattle is making transit free to 1,500 public housing residents. Thompson said he wishes Metro or D.C. would do more to help make transit affordable to more people.
Janetta said local jurisdictions would have to fund subsidies for lower-income people.
D.C. transportation spokeswoman Christina Stowers said Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has made city-run transportation, like the DC Streetcar and the Circulator, free, although the City Council rejected continuing free Circulator service past September. The administration is also subsidizing free Metro passes for schoolchildren and has subsidized Capital Bikeshare for veterans and low-income residents.
Council transportation committee chairwoman Mary Cheh and council member Charles Allen, who has expressed interest to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in replacing council member Jack Evans on the Metro board, said they’ll keep tabs of other cities’ efforts subsidizing low-income transit passes.
Subsidizing fares for low-income people would particularly help those living east of the Anacostia River with long commutes and multiple transfers, Allen said.
Cheh noted that the Bowser administration has been subsidizing free fares to children and those taking adult education classes. Just doing that is budgeted to cost the city $20 million next fiscal year. “It’s not like we can snap fingers and provide more subsidy,” Cheh said. “It always comes down to the budget.”