The move also could hurt competing transit systems such as Metrobus and Capital Bikeshare, the panel warned.
The council’s decision comes as momentum for free and reduced fares has spread in the Washington region and across the nation as workers decide whether to return to familiar commutes or give other options a try. Alexandria recently approved making DASH buses free starting in the fall, and Metro is lowering the weekend train fare and eliminating a $1.50 transfer free between rail and bus, although a regular Metrobus ride will still cost $2.
City transportation officials said they hope the council will reassess its decision before the budget receives a second and final vote next month.
The council, which voted last week on an budget that begins Oct. 1, also approved using revenue from new traffic enforcement cameras to pay for sweeping road safety legislation approved last fall. The budget includes tens of millions of dollars for fixing the city’s road infrastructure and advancing projects focused on buses, bikes and pedestrians.
In rejecting free fares for the Circulator system, D.C. lawmakers said they aren’t opposed to free or reduced transit but want to make sure such an initiative would benefit those who need it most.
“We know the Circulator largely serves tourists and visitors,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “And if we’re going to make transit more affordable or free, we need to make sure we’re focused on those that need transit the most — those that have the hardest time paying for it.”
Allen, a vocal advocate for more transit, said he plans to reintroduce a proposal he sponsored last year to give each resident $100 a month to use for public transportation. That approach would more directly help low-income residents, he said, although it also would come with a much larger price tag.
Bowser had sought $1.4 million in the fiscal 2022 budget to keep the bus service free. Her proposal didn’t include plans for keeping it free in subsequent years, the council said. The Circulator, like other transit systems, suspended fares at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic but will resume collecting fares Oct. 1 unless the council reverses its decision.
The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Lauren Stephens, a spokeswoman for the District Department of Transportation, said the mayor hopes the council will reconsider.
“This administration has been focused on improving transit and making it accessible. And this is just one way that we can do that,” Stephens said, noting other cities are taking steps to make transit free. “The mayor supports that and is committed to that, but we can’t do it alone.”
Bowser since 2019 has unsuccessfully tried to eliminate fares on the Circulator. She suspended fares early that year to offer relief to federal workers affected by a government shutdown, then that spring announced the service would remain free indefinitely.
But fares returned that fall after the council denied Bowser the funding to continue free rides. The money would be better spent on initiatives that more clearly benefit District residents, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the panel’s transportation committee, said at the time. And, she said, that is still the case.
“Maybe in the future that might be the way we go. But now the case has not been made and we can use the money elsewhere,” she said. “We can create a new Circulator route, for example.”
The council approved a capital budget that allocates $14.7 million in fiscal year 2022 and $22.3 million over the next five years to replace aging Circulator buses, improve bus stops and for the acquisition of a bus garage, which would add the infrastructure necessary for a new Circulator route in Ward 7.
Existing Circulator routes — which carried 5 million passengers annually before the pandemic — connect communities across the city to downtown and other destinations, such a Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Eastern Market and the Wharf. Stephens said many residents also use it to get to jobs in those locations.
“It may just be a dollar to some, but for other people that matters,” she said. “And that definitely impacts the bottom line when you can take a free Circulator bus to get downtown or across town.”
The council also directed the city to use revenue from 118 traffic cameras the District is buying to fund a Vision Zero bill passed last September. The legislation requires the construction of more protected bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of a street. It also bans right-on-red turns at most intersections and accelerates other improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure. It will cost $41 million annually, but Bowser had not included funding in her proposed budget.
“If these 100-plus new cameras bring in even half the revenue of the current cameras, we will have fully funded the bill,” Cheh said.
Lawmakers said it is fitting to link revenue from drivers violating traffic laws with improving safety for all road users. City leaders said funding a bill that was approved to target an increase in traffic fatalities and injuries sends a message that the city is serious about its commitment to Vision Zero — a program that aims to eliminate traffic deaths.
“We watched our fatalities for drivers, for cyclists, for pedestrians continue to rise,” said Allen, the lead sponsor of the Vision Zero bill. “So until we’re willing to put teeth into it, until we’re willing to fund it, that slogan doesn’t carry a lot of weight.”
Other transportation-related items in the council’s spending plan include $250,000 for a study of safety improvements in downtown and $500,000 to study how to get multiple modes of transportation — from scooters to bikes and pedestrians — to better coexist in the compact road network in Georgetown.
It includes $2.2 million to cover design costs of the remake of Connecticut Avenue NW, where the city is looking to remove a reversible lane system and possibly add a bike lane. The plan also sets aside $1.7 million for pedestrian and bicyclist safety improvements on Georgia Avenue NW, which the council labeled “one of the District’s most dangerous corridors” in the city — and where a 4-year-old boy was struck and killed by a vehicle April 1 as he was crossing at Kennedy Street NW.
“We know this is one of the most dangerous streets in the city, and after years of analysis, it’s finally time to start making tangible improvements to slow down cars and make the roads safer for everyone,” said D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who represents that portion of Georgia Avenue.
The council approved Bowser’s request to invest $19 million in the next six years to expand Capital Bikeshare, including $6.8 million in the coming year. The mayor has proposed adding 80 new stations and more than doubling the city’s e-bike fleet.
The council also approved $580,000 in the next budget and $2.3 million over four years to expand the city’s trail rangers program, which will ensure patrolling and maintenance of the city’s trails year-round. Rangers currently canvass trails by bike — helping to clear vegetation while reporting maintenance problems — only during the spring and summer.
“This investment keeps our trails clean and allows people to feel safe using them,” Lewis George said.