In a six-hour board meeting Thursday that covered the state of Metro’s finances and ridership, not once did Metro officials mention the D.C. Council’s vote this week to waive Metrobus fares in the city.
Metro General Manager Randy Clarke and Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said after the meeting that it wasn’t a lack of enthusiasm that prompted the silence. Instead, they said, it was the fact the bill still requires a final council vote and the mayor’s signature before it becomes law.
The Metro leaders said fare-free bus service will energize transit usage in the region and potentially lead to more riders, but they said it will not do the one thing transit leaders are most focused on now: Finding hundreds of millions of dollars in stable, annual funding to stave off future service cuts and replace fare revenue lost during a move to telework.
“I look at the D.C. bill as being, for lack of a better term, cost-neutral,” Clarke said.
The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to offer the free bus service. The proposal requires a final vote at the council’s next meeting and signature from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has raised funding concerns, but council members say the biggest hurdle is cleared. The District would join cities such as Kansas City, Mo., Richmond and Alexandria in making transit free — a movement that gained momentum nationwide since the pandemic highlighted the role of public buses in transporting essential workers and those with no other alternatives.
Under the D.C. plan, anyone in the District could board a Metrobus without a fare card. More than 80 percent of D.C.’s Metrobus users live in the District, while nearly 70 percent of District bus riders earn below $50,000 a year, according to the city and Metro.
Riders would still be charged fares at the city rail stations. Riders boarding in Maryland and Virginia would still be required to pay fares.
“It is good for transit, it is good for the community and getting people to where they need to be, whether it be for a job as ‘essential’ workers or just getting to a doctor’s appointment,” said Smedberg. “For a lot of folks, it’s a way they get to the Metro station and it potentially helps increase Metro ridership, as well.”
Clarke said the waiving of fares would speed up bus service and lead to “quality of life” increases by reducing transit time through faster boarding.
“We go to all-door boarding, you just changed significantly how the bus system works,” he said. “We’re excited to work with the District and have robust conversations of what the next steps look like of implementation.”
But Metro, like other transit agencies, is facing a long-term funding crisis because telework has reduced public transit usage. The decline in riders translates into a budget gap of more than $180 million next year that’s expected to exceed $500 million the following year. Metro officials don’t expect ridership to return to pre-pandemic levels over the next five years, although transit officials say regional leaders and riders have insisted Metro not cut service.
While Metro would receive more money from the District to operate buses than if it collected fares from D.C. rides, the difference is small when compared to the looming funding crisis, transit leaders said.
“We don’t have enough money to run the system that we have today in [fiscal year] ’25,” Clarke said. “We need a regional conversation about what our funding looks like long-term.”