Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has not given up her fight to make DC Circulator rides free permanently, despite the D.C. Council having nixed her request to fund the proposal.
Bowser (D) announced in March that the city would permanently eliminate the Circulator’s $1 fare, citing the move as a way to help the city’s minimum- and low-wage residents.
But critics said the plan disproportionately benefited tourists and those who live and work in some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. The service has six routes, primarily serving downtown Washington and the Mall.
In May, the council denied Bowser’s request for $3.1 million in the fiscal 2020 budget to keep the rides free. Several council members said they have no intention — nor is there any money — to give the mayor what she wants. So, fares are set to resume Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
In an effort to sway the council, Bowser has taken her campaign to the public, using social media to encourage residents to lobby council members. She has doubled down on her #KeepCirculatorFree tweets to include videos of riders showering her with praise for the fare break of the past six months.
“It is true: for some, the $1 fare is nominal,” Bowser tweeted recently. “For many others, though — especially for our most vulnerable neighbors — it is prohibitive.”
“We have a unique opportunity for the District to lead in free, public transportation while helping our most vulnerable neighbors save money and get around the city,” the mayor tweeted recently, again urging the D.C. Council to #KeepCirculatorFree.
Council members, so far, appear unswayed.
“She can keep tweeting, but she knows what the story is. The budget is done. It’s not going to happen,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment.
Cheh said Bowser failed to prove the free rides were benefiting the District’s lowest-income residents.
Council members also had concerns about the effect the free service would have on other transit options and said there was no evidence that the free service would help reduce vehicle traffic. Cheh said Bowser’s request for a year of funding to cover free service without offering a long-term plan for sustaining it was financially unacceptable.
“The council doesn’t want to do it,” Cheh said. “Maybe she’s taking advice from Trump’s book — you keep tweeting and acting like this is something fantastic and the council is just getting in the way. I think that is a misrepresentation. I think that the plan was not well conceived.”
The Circulator does little to serve residents of some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. One of the six lines — Union Station-Congress Heights — has about half its route in one of the poorer pockets of the city.
So critics say they remain baffled at Bowser’s insistence on continuing the fight. The mayor and her supporters, however, say they still have hope in legislation dubbed the D.C. Circulator Equity Act that would essentially eliminate the fare.
The council has not taken action on the bill, introduced in early June by council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), the mayor’s closest ally on the panel. The legislation is awaiting a hearing date before Cheh’s transportation committee, and with the council in recess until Sept. 15, it is unlikely to make progress toward approval before the new fiscal year.
Eric Feldman, a spokesman for Todd, said the council member is “hopeful” Cheh will schedule a hearing “so we can make the DC Circulator — and public transportation in general — more accessible to residents.”
Jeff Marootian, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, echoed Todd and Bowser’s aspirations for the legislation.
“We continue to see the benefits of keeping the Circulator free and we will continue to join the mayor in advocating for keeping it free,” Marootian said. “We are going to wait to see what happens because there’s still some opportunity there.”
Cheh said recently that there are no plans for a September hearing on the bill.
Even if one were scheduled, there wouldn’t be enough time to move the legislation through markup and two readings before the full council before Oct. 1. Critics said that if the proposal were to somehow pass the council in time, it would remain unfunded.
Bowser made the rides free in February as part of an initiative she called Fair Shot. She extended the policy the following month and promised in her March 18 State of the District address that the Circulator would remain free.
The mayor announced Friday that about 3 million free rides have been provided since February, representing a 27 percent increase in ridership compared with the same period last year, according to city data.
The mayor’s recent #KeepCirculatorFree tweetstorm has elicited a variety of responses, with some praising the idea and others calling it misguided.
“Free trips for tourists? Stop the madness!” one person tweeted this month, responding to a Bowser tweet with a video of a woman who said she uses the Circulator to take her daughters to school.
“DC is in urgent need of *quality* public transit, not free public transit,” Anthony LaMesa tweeted in response to another video the mayor posted of a woman saying she sometimes doesn’t have enough money on her SmarTrip card to ride Metro, so she uses the Circulator.
“Just don’t understand why of all the budget changes the council made the mayor’s team is still pushing this one,” tweeted David Alpert, a transit advocate and editor of Greater Greater Washington. “Making bus cheaper was a noble impulse but making Circulator, which is designed for tourists, free versus buses that serve lower-income neighborhoods was misguided.”
Tommy Wells, director of the city’s Department of Energy and Environment, replied in the mayor’s defense: “Getting people out of cars that have a choice helps everyone.”
D.C. resident Lateefah Williams said she supports free public transit, but is concerned with the Circulator being the only option since it isn’t accessible in all neighborhoods.
“The @DCCirculator doesn’t serve many neighborhoods that need access to affordable transportation the most,” she tweeted. “If the Circulator remains free permanently, it should be accompanied by free [Metro] access for all communities not adequately served by the Circulator.”
Although city officials continue their push for the free rides, DDOT is planning a post-Labor Day campaign to prepare the roughly 18,500 daily riders for the return of the $1 fare Oct. 1.