The District will become the nation’s most populous city to offer free public transit after the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to waive fares for Metrobus rides.
The vote is part of a nationwide movement toward free or reduced-fare transit that gained momentum during the pandemic, which highlighted the role of public buses in transporting essential workers and those who have no other alternatives. The measure also aligns with the city’s goals of increasing transit usage and removing vehicles from clogged city streets.
All 13 council members voted to subsidize bus service, with many saying that cutting fares will give lower-income residents with limited transportation options more financial security in one of the nation’s most expensive cities, while also removing a burden for job seekers and businesses struggling with labor shortages. More than 80 percent of Metrobus users in D.C. live in the District.
“This is something that is one of those rare win, win, wins,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the initial author of the legislation. “Deep, immediate, meaningful impact for working families all across our city.”
The council will take a final vote on the measure at its next meeting to send it to the desk of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had urged leaders to reject the plan and include it in the city’s annual budget planning process for additional review, citing cost concerns.
The path to free bus service in the District arrived incrementally and was accelerated by the pandemic.
In 2013, then-council member Bowser (D), helped to launch the city’s Kids Ride Free program, allowing D.C. students to ride the bus free, subsidized by the city. The program was expanded two years later, when Bowser became mayor, to include trains. Metro also discounts trips for seniors and people with disabilities.
Beginning in March 2020, transit leaders waived Metrobus fares through January 2021 to protect bus operators from the coronavirus by requiring passengers to board from rear doors, limiting contact with drivers. The farebox and first rows of seating were cordoned off to create a buffer.
While ridership during the early months of the pandemic was dramatically lower than pre-pandemic levels, Metro officials said ridership fell when fare collection resumed. District and Metro officials say they hope free bus rides also will lead to more people riding Metrorail, which is not included in the legislation and continues to draw about half of pre-pandemic ridership.
Riders will continue to pay standard fares when boarding buses in Virginia or Maryland.
The initial version of the bill, known as “Metro for D.C.,” was pitched by Allen in early 2020. It proposed giving all city residents $100 a month in transit credits for use on Metrobus, Metrorail and other regional transit providers. The program was to be funded by excess city tax revenue.
But its cost — estimated at about $150 million annually — was projected to be steep. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Metro board member Tracy Hadden Loh, who represents the District’s interests on the board, also indicated that syncing the subsidy with Metro’s fare gate system might prove complex.
Mendelson said he reached out to Metro General Manager Randy Clarke and came up with a plan to simply waive fare collection on Metrobuses. The cost of the program is estimated at $42 million, substantially lower than the transit subsidy program.
The amended bill proposes to add a subsidy in October 2024, if funding is available. The current version includes a $10 million annual boost for bus infrastructure improvements that was part of the original bill. The council was scheduled to vote late Tuesday on funding the annual improvements.
Questions about the bill Tuesday centered on its cost and effectiveness at helping low-income residents. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) wondered if D.C. would end up paying for the bus rides of people who live outside the District.
“I’m just really trying to make sure we’re mindful of how much we’re spending and who benefits — and if we’re, in part, subsidizing nonresidents’ trips within the District or trips that start in the District and end up somewhere else, then I would ask ‘Is this the best use of our money here in the District of Columbia when there are a lot of pressing needs?’” he asked.
In a letter to council members, Bowser said the bill needed greater scrutiny.
“District residents and taxpayers will have to pay for this program,” she said. “Our neighbors, Virginia and Maryland, should absorb some of these costs as their residents will benefit from this program as well.”
During a news conference last week, Bowser also noted the discrepancy between council members’ support for the Metrobus legislation and their rejection of her proposal to waive fares on the six-route D.C. Circulator in 2021.
Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) urged council members to take into account all benefits of waiving fares, such as removing cars from the road and speeding up bus transit.
Business leaders praised the move, saying it would facilitate getting customers through their doors and help employees get to work.
“It’s really important for the revitalization of downtown, where the pandemic’s effects are being felt every day,” said Ché Ruddell-Tabisola, director of government affairs and member advocacy for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “For the workforce, if you’re closing bar or you’re closing in the kitchen and might not get off work until 11 or 12-plus at night, having safe, reliable, clean and now free transportation — that’s great.”
D.C.’s leap into going fare-free comes as leaders in other jurisdictions served by Metro also are exploring ways to further subsidize bus service.
Jeffrey C. McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the cost of eliminating fares on the Fairfax Connector would be about $9 million annually. Cutting fares on Metrobus in Fairfax would cost the county about $13 million more, McKay said.
He said the county plans to pilot a program next year to charge lower-income residents $1 on the Fairfax bus system, which is half the standard fare.
“The concern is, if you go totally free out of nowhere, what happens if we get so overwhelmed and can’t keep up with the service?” McKay said.
In Montgomery County, the RideOn bus service was fare-free for two years during the pandemic. County leaders brought fares back at $1, which is half the previous cost.
Tom Hucker, a former county council member who advocated for free fares as chairman of the transportation committee, said the District’s move could give new weight for bringing free buses to Montgomery.
“It ought to be widely available,” he said, comparing transit to public services like roads, parks and libraries.
Frequent bus riders Monday at D.C.’s Rhode Island Avenue Metro station said they supported eliminating fares, especially since they see so many other passengers not paying. David Johnson, 58, of D.C., said free bus service will encourage more people to ride, adding that the $100 he spends each month commuting could be used elsewhere.
“It would make a big difference,” he said.
Brockelle Nelson, 30, of Maryland, said she continued to ride the bus throughout the pandemic and watched service levels deteriorate. She said rather than relying on Metro to hire more drivers and boost reliability, it made sense to provide relief in another way.
“Take the immediate action that helps people now,” Nelson said. “That little $2 adds up over the week.”
While some transit agencies have committed to free bus travel for a limited number of years, officials at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority said there is no end date for their zero-fare program.
Richard Jarrold, the agency’s deputy chief executive, said the ease of boarding without paying helped to maintain ridership during the pandemic and propelled the transit system’s recovery.
The agency has faced challenges with people boarding buses and riding for long stretches to take shelter, he said. Jarrold said the transportation authority is helping drivers to handle conflicts and is working with social service organizations.
“It’s been well-used. Our customers are very pleased,” he said. “We believe this is an important pillar going forward of transit in Kansas City.”
Transportation officials in Richmond said they are similarly happy with their decision to go fare-free in March 2020.
Adrienne Torres, chief development officer at the Greater Richmond Transit Company, said riders are taking more short trips, adding that any slowdown from increased stoppages is outweighed by quicker boarding. The agency’s data indicates a large share of riders make less than $25,000 a year.
In D.C., council members voiced support for removing fares Tuesday while citing financial benefits to the city’s families.
During the first of two votes on the measure Tuesday, Allen said “enthusiastically, yes.” Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) chimed in with “another enthusiastic yes.” Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) followed: “dramatically, enthusiastic, yes.”
Michael Brice-Saddler and Karina Elwood contributed to this report.
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