When Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced in March that the city would permanently eliminate the $1 fare on the D.C. Circulator, she heralded the move as a way to help the city’s minimum- and low-wage workers.
“For working people, it adds up,” Bowser (D) said in her State of the District speech on March 18. “I am proud to say that we will make the D.C. Circulator free from now on.”
But in a major blow to her agenda, the D.C. Council is on the verge of denying Bowser’s request for $3.1 million to keep the Circulator free in the coming fiscal year, citing “numerous concerns” with the proposal.
Some lawmakers said they were puzzled that Bowser thought she was helping city residents by making rides free on a bus system that has only six routes and is used primarily by tourists and those who live and work downtown and in some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
“Most of the beneficiaries of this change would be from the higher-income communities,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the panel’s transportation committee.
The committee had harsh criticism for Bowser’s initiative in its budget recommendations earlier this month. The money could be better spent on initiatives that more clearly benefit District residents, said Cheh, backed by committee members.
The council is expected to take the first of two required votes on the fiscal 2020 budget Tuesday .
Bowser’s decision to expand the free-ride program, which started as a month-long fare reprieve after the federal government shutdown, has put her at odds with the council, which was not consulted or briefed on the plan.
“She made this decision, and she wants what she wants,” Cheh said. “But it is our job to actually see whether it makes sense. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
To support its position, the Bowser administration points to new data showing ridership has skyrocketed since rides became free. In April, nearly 150,000 more passengers rode the Circulator, a 37 percent increase compared with April 2018, according to data released by Bowser’s office.
“People are gravitating towards [the] Circulator,” said Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio. “I don’t know of any other program that has seen growth as rapidly as we have.”
The ridership data was released Wednesday afternoon as the council was reviewing the budget. The announcement says that “the Council has ignored the supportive response from residents and has proposed to eliminate free DC Circulator for residents.” A tweetstorm followed with the hashtag #KeepCirculatorFree.
Ridership data also shows month-over-month increases since February, which could be at least partly attributable to the free rides. But transit experts say other factors also could be contributing to the uptick, including service improvements since a new contractor took over the system last year, expanded hours on some lines, and a major realignment of a route that replaced Metrobus service in Southeast.
Some lawmakers said they are “quite skeptical” of the city-produced data, citing earlier, much lower figures provided by the District Department of Transportation. For February, DDOT numbers showed a 0.3 percent increase over 2018, according to a council budget report. Figures sent by the mayor’s office show a 6 percent increase in February ridership, the council committee said. Those were “conveniently coupled with a public messaging campaign from the Mayor’s Office to ‘Keep Circulator Free,’ ” the budget report said.
City officials blamed “rough estimates” for the conflicting numbers, according to the council. But even if ridership is up, critics say, the city has still failed to provide an analysis of other benefits or the impact on other public transit.
For example, DDOT has not looked at how a free Circulator would affect Metro, Capital Bikeshare or the tourist hop-on and hop-off buses, Cheh said. And the agency has provided no evidence that making the Circulator free contributes to the goal of reducing the number of cars on the road.
Bowser has spent this spring promoting the free bus initiative, waging a public fight with the council and recruiting supporters in the city’s poorest ward to speak publicly about how the free rides benefit those most in need. At an April 24 news conference on K Street NW, where she was talking about another bus project, Bowser was introduced by a Southeast community leader pronouncing support for the free rides, while several people holding “Keep DC Circulator FREE” signs surrounded the mayor.
Some transit advocates praise the idea of free transit but question whether the benefit is going to those most in need. Reducing or eliminating fares can be a useful strategy for cities trying to eliminate the financial barriers that keep people from riding the bus and help reverse declining ridership. Some supporters say, if applied to a wider network of buses, it could also help reduce single-vehicle trips.
“As a philosophy, free public transportation is not a bad idea,” said Kishan Putta, a member of the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission and public transit advocate.
“Traffic and congestion is bad and only getting worse,” Putta said. “The only way we are going to solve it is to make public transportation easier, faster and cheaper. The cheaper we make it the better.”
But some are surprised at how suddenly the mayor embraced the idea and did so without consulting lawmakers or delivering a cost-benefit analysis.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said the approach should be much broader to give all D.C. residents, especially those in need, a break.
Those families generally have to make two or three bus connections to get to work or school, and “there is no Circulator for them,” Allen said at a budget meeting last week. “[The Circulator] doesn’t serve the entirety of our city, and it definitely doesn’t serve the places that have the hardest time when it comes to transit equity.”
Rosa Canales, a part-time cleaner who lives on a salary of $13.25 an hour, takes a Metrobus from the city’s Brightwood neighborhood to downtown, where she transfers to the Circulator. The bus-to-bus transfer was already free within a two-hour window before the mayor’s program.
“I don’t save anything. I still have to pay the $2 fare on the 70 bus,” Canales said as she waited 30 minutes for a Circulator bus Wednesday afternoon. She is more concerned about the quality of the Circulator now that it’s free, as promises of 10-minute headways are rarely met, she said.
“It has been very slow lately,” Canales said. “Is it because it’s free now?”
Of the six Circulator routes, only one spends about half its course in the poorest pockets of the District — the Union Station-Congress Heights line, which was restructured last year to connect residents east of the Anacostia River in Ward 8 to job centers at Navy Yard, Eastern Market and the Capitol Hill area.
The other five lines mainly serve downtown and wealthier neighborhoods, from Georgetown to Dupont Circle to Woodley Park to the gentrified areas along 14th Street NW, Navy Yard and the Southwest Waterfront, home to million-dollar condos.
“If we were making Metrobuses free . . . I would be 100 percent for it because they go to low-income parts of the city, which rely on the buses,” Putta said.
Troy Shockley, who works with low-income D.C. residents in training programs at the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation, said the 138 students enrolled there benefited from the free fares.
“A lot of our students have tight budgets,” Shockley said. “That saves them an expense that they can’t really afford.”
The students take the Circulator between two training sites, and he said many told him the free rides have made it easier for them get places, including to Ward 8’s only grocery store. It has also helped with student retention, he said, because one of the primary concerns for students is affording transportation.
“It is my hope that they keep the Circulator free, and particularly for our route,” he said.
The council’s budget keeps Bowser’s request for funding to add another Circulator line in Southeast.
Meanwhile, Bowser and her staff say she’s fighting for the people who have stopped her in store checkout lines and at dinner to thank her for the free rides.
“It is not just a top priority for her, it is a top priority for people who use it,” Falcicchio said.
“For the mayor, it is not about her winning or losing. It is about whether the people who ride the Circulator win or lose,” he said. “And that is what the council members have before them. Do they want to hand a win to those riders, or do they just want to study it?”