Allen first introduced the bill on March 1, 2020, the same month that the coronavirus public health crisis began, which shifted the council’s focus. The bill had been co-introduced by nearly half of the council members.
The bill this week was co-sponsored by 10 of the council’s 13 members, signaling strong interest in the measure.
The pandemic pummeled revenue for Metro, but advocates of free and lower-cost transit said it also highlighted transit’s importance in getting retail and service employees to work in grocery stores, takeout restaurants and other essential services. Momentum has increased nationally for free transit over the past year, with Alexandria among the communities that have ended fares.
“We saw clearly in the pandemic that essential workers depended on public transit to get to and from work,” Allen said in a statement. “That’s who kept us running during the hardest days and, I suspect, did so while spending too much of each paycheck on the cost to commute.”
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said the transit agency appreciates Allen’s support and “understanding of the vital role that Metro plays in helping residents get to work, school, stores and other activities.”
Money to pay for the program would come from tax revenue that had exceeded city projections, thanks to growth and rising property values. The pandemic quickly lowered projected revenue levels last year, but for the fiscal year that ended last week, D.C. was expected to take in more than $500 million beyond those projections.
Allen has said the plan would cost between $54 million and $151 million a year, depending on factors that include usage and negotiated discounts. All District residents could receive $100 monthly on their SmarTrip cards, although those who receive a government commuter or transit benefit would not be eligible.
The bill also would create a fund to devote millions of dollars to improving bus service in the District, focusing on underserved neighborhoods with many lower-income residents who do not have cars. Allen said the improvements and fare credits would attract more riders for Metro, which is another goal.
Historic ridership and fare revenue losses during the pandemic have been buffered by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid, which is filling a more than $750 million budget hole this year at the transit agency. Metro leaders cut fares in June in hopes of encouraging more people to use transit, and board members have discussed passing more cuts and fare changes next year.
Metro officials have said customer surveys show that riders rank improved transit service over lower fares. Allen said the bill accomplishes both.
As “we come out of the pandemic, our local economy absolutely needs a strong [Metro],” Allen said. “Metro for D.C. is a serious investment in both our workers and in our region’s future.”
The bill hasn’t been assigned to a committee and is probably months away from a vote. Co-introducers include Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Robert White (D-At Large), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2).