The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

1 in 3 Metrobus rides goes unpaid amid rise in fare evasions during pandemic

A new report shows Metro lost millions in revenue from spike in unpaid trips

SmarTrip card and fare target. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Metrobus riders are skipping out on paying fares on 34 percent of trips, a percentage that has doubled during a pandemic that continues to decimate the transit agency’s finances.

A new report Monday showed Metro lost $10 million because of fare evasions during the final six months of last year. The transit agency said 17 percent of Metrobus trips were unpaid between July and the end of December in 2019, compared with 34 percent of trips during the same period last year.

Fare evasions on Metrobus far outpace the rail system, where ridership has been much slower to recover during the pandemic. Details about the rise in fare evasions were included in a quarterly report that will be presented to Metro board members during a Thursday meeting.

Fare evasion has long been a complex issue for Metro, but its effects could have a greater financial blow as nearly a billion dollars in federal coronavirus stimulus money, which has made up for lost fare revenue, starts to run out next year. The transit agency in recent months has proposed fare cuts to lure back riders, saying its projections show a slow ridership recovery as costs continue to rise.

“Fare evasion continues to present challenges to [Metro], negatively impacting the Authority’s financial position,” the report said. “Recent data suggests that evasion rates continue to grow.”

Critics say Metro does little to stem the problem, arguing it puts an unfair burden on local governments that subsidize transit service and on the riders who do pay fares. Some local governments, including the District, increasingly have viewed fare evasion as a social issue stemming from poverty rather than a crime.

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In 2018, citing concerns over soaring enforcement levels and disproportionate Metro Transit Police stops of African Americans, the D.C. Council voted to decriminalize fare evasion in the city, making it a civil offense. It can carry civil and criminal penalties in Maryland and Virginia.

According to the Metro report, 72 percent of Metro’s fare evasion incidents took place on Metrobus between July 2018 and July 2019, amounting to $26 million in lost fares, while Metrorail reported losses up to $10 million.

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But as ridership began to decline on Metrobus in 2016, before plummeting dramatically when the pandemic began, rates of fare evasion increased. Between mid-2016 and mid-2017, riders who didn’t pay accounted for 14 percent of all trips. That grew to 17 percent in mid-2019 before doubling to 34 percent of all bus trips last year.

Of roughly $10 million in lost fare money during the second half of 2021, Metrobus accounted for $8.6 million, according to Metro, with the remaining amount on the rail system. Riders often avoid paying fares on Metrorail by jumping gates or pushing past emergency doors, while they can evade the fare box on Metrobus by entering through rear bus doors.

Metrobus operators do not enforce fares, according to a bus operator training manual. After attacks on bus operators, the transit agency made fare enforcement the responsibility of Metro Transit Police officers, who respond to disputes and occasionally patrol buses.

Drivers are discouraged from bringing attention to someone who skips a fare, and the Metro manual said drivers should not stop a fare evader or delay a trip if a passenger avoids paying.

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Metrobus offers cheaper fares than Metrorail and serves lower-income customers. According to Metro’s most recent passenger survey, 4 out of 5 bus riders belong to racial minority groups, compared with 2 out of 5 rail riders. Half of bus riders are low-income compared with 10 percent of Metro riders, agency surveys show.

Metrobus ridership experienced less of a drop than Metrorail during the pandemic and serves customers with fewer transportation alternatives. That trend was seen across the country during the pandemic, prompting more transit agencies and local governments to explore actions to reduce bus fares, with Alexandria’s DASH bus system among those going fare-free.

Montgomery County’s Ride On bus system has not collected fares since the pandemic began. It will remain free until at least July, spokeswoman Emily DeTitta said. County Council members extended the pause in fare collection in November, in part, to give low-income riders a break. The Fairfax Connector bus system does not explicitly track fare evasion, agency officials said.

The D.C. Council will discuss a bill this month proposed by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) that would give city residents $100 in monthly fare credit. Doing so, he said, would erase fare evasion’s financial effects while boosting ridership.

“Most people skipping fares are doing so because they can’t afford to pay their transportation costs,” Allen said in a statement. “We can help ease that pain a little with a monthly balance of $100 for every D.C. resident. And in doing so, I think we also pave the way for how [Metro] recovers from a very hard few years.”

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Metro is awaiting results of a nine-month D.C. study on how fares affect lower-income residents. The study was launched by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) but was delayed by the pandemic.

“The findings can be used to inform future policies and programs that make transit more affordable for low-income residents,” Metro’s report said.

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Metro’s report on Monday showed 42 percent of Metrobus fare evasion incidents took place in the District during the last half of 2021. Fare evasion in Maryland made up 34 percent of all incidents, while Virginia cases made up 6 percent.

A study by New York-based research and advocacy group TransitCenter last year urged transit agencies to determine what’s driving the rise in fare evasion.

The report said solutions could include making ticket vending machines more available, while other instances might involve issues, such as homelessness, that are beyond what a transit agency can provide. The report also recommends that transit agencies ensure that it’s simple for residents to sign up for low-income and student fare programs.

The District provides student-age riders with free SmarTrip passes, while Metro reduces fares for seniors.

The TransitCenter reviewed fare evasion punishments across the country, determining that many are harsher than penalties drivers face for not paying parking tickets. The group warned that interactions with riders who don’t pay can lead to violent conflicts between bus drivers and riders.