The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. leaders say free-bus plan will advance despite Bowser’s cost concerns

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser proposed a budget that doesn’t include the program, but a sponsor of the plan said the city will fund it without the mayor’s support

City leaders say they will fund a program to provide free bus rides despite the mayor's opposition. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
6 min

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the cost of the free Metrobus service program passed by the D.C. Council. The program will cost $43 million in the 2024 fiscal year. The article has been corrected.

D.C. leaders said the city will move forward with a plan to subsidize free Metrobus service later this year, even as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Wednesday proposed a budget that doesn’t include the program.

The D.C. Council voted in December to make boarding a Metrobus in the city free starting this summer, a program that would make the District the largest city in the country to offer free transit. But Bowser said Wednesday that the program’s annual cost has not been fully assessed and that questions remain about how the plan would effect D.C.'s responsibility to disabled travelers as well as a separate program that provides free rides to school-age youth and another that Metro has proposed for lower-income riders.

“It’s important for the council members to carefully consider the cost — what it would cost to provide free Metrobus in the District, not just this year, but throughout the financial plan,” she said, referring to a four-year span that Congress requires D.C. to project spending.

Bowser’s decision to withhold funding is the latest challenge for a program being watched by other cities weighing similar proposals. The move to fare-free transit grew during the pandemic as a way to reduce costs for cash-strapped workers and to help transit agencies struggling with lower passenger counts during the pandemic.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), a sponsor of the program known as Metro for D.C., said that the mayor’s decision was expected and that the council will add free bus service into the city’s budget without the mayor’s support. He said the concerns she raised were worked out weeks ago.

The council is charged with approving the budget and has leeway to introduce or remove proposed items as D.C.'s annual spending plan is shaped.

“What we will be now doing is working through the budget process to make sure we fully fund ‘Metro for D.C.,’ ” Allen said.

The council is expected to vote on the budget in late May, which would leave about a month for Metro to prepare for the free service. Metro officials did not respond to questions Wednesday about the program’s status.

Once approved, Allen said, a start date would probably shift to the fall, rather than the initial plan to launch in July.

Fare-free bus program doesn’t have funding, D.C. finance chief says

Supporters of free transit have said the service would help alleviate financial burdens on residents facing high housing costs, erase a barrier for lower-income residents without cars, shrink the labor shortage, and increase visits to retail stores and restaurants.

Questions over the program’s viability emerged late last month when the District’s chief financial officer told council members that the city didn’t have enough money for the program, creating a legal and financial dispute involving budget officials, the mayor’s administration and the council.

Council members had passed the $43-million-a-year program in December with little discussion about the city’s ability to fund it. The service was to be paid by excess District revenue, a pool of leftover money that had been growing before the pandemic amid the city’s rapid growth and escalating property values.

Council members expected that trend to resume as the economic effects of the pandemic subsided. That appeared to be the case as of late last year, according to projections.

In December, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee’s monthly report on city revenue indicated that the bus program would be funded. The law to create the free-fare program required Lee to certify that the District could afford the program, and council members viewed his assessment as the required approval.

But in the same report, Lee warned council members that D.C. financial analysts needed to wait until the end of February to make a clear determination on what tax revenue would be available in the 2024 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Earlier this month, Lee’s revenue report indicated that soft economic conditions during the first part of the year had prompted him to revise his analysis, which concluded the District could not fund the program.

D.C. Council President Phil Mendelson (D) contested Lee’s ruling, saying the finance officer could not legally reverse his certification of funding for the free bus service. If there wasn’t money available next year, Mendelson said, it was within the council’s purview to figure out how to handle the shortfall.

Lee, Mendelson said, could not decide to cut the bus program.

“It’s my view that the chief financial officer exceeded his authority and that the law is quite clear,Mendelson said earlier this month.

The disagreement led Lee’s office to seek a ruling from the D.C. Attorney General’s Office on whether his earlier assessment counted as formal certification of the bus program. The attorney general validated the council’s view, according to a letter Mendelson sent Lee this week.

Under the program, passengers at Metrobus stops would be able to board free without using a SmarTrip card. The program also would expand around-the-clock bus service on several of the transit system’s busiest routes to help late-night service workers when Metrorail closes. The legislation also would create a $10-million-a-year bus infrastructure fund.

D.C. votes to eliminate Metrobus fares in movement toward free transit

Bowser had opposed subsidizing Metrobus rides from the outset, saying such a costly program needed to go through the city’s budget process for closer scrutiny. She did not sign the law last month creating the program, a move that had no legal effect but was a sign of continued disapproval.

In a letter her office sent this week to Lee, Bowser asked the finance officer to provide an updated cost analysis to fund free bus service in the District, as well as the cost to fund MetroAccess, the region’s main paratransit service for disabled residents. Bowser indicated that the cost of subsidizing MetroAccess was something city officials overlooked.

Bowser said at a Wednesday news conference that it was unclear whether the council’s program would cover rides for school-age youth, who receive free rides through D.C.'s $26-million-a-year Kids Ride Free program.

“There needs to be some confirmation around how those programs interact,” she said.

She also noted Metro has proposed to cut fares in half for lower-income riders across its service area who qualify for federal food assistance. That discount would start July 1, if approved by Metro’s board. Bowser said it is not clear how that might affect the District’s costs in providing free rides.

Allen said Wednesday that the council considered those factors weeks ago: MetroAccess rides would cost D.C. about $1.5 million. The Kids Ride Free program brings down the overall cost of free bus service. The fare cut Metro is considering for lower-income riders would further reduce the city’s expense.

Three years after the pandemic began, Bowser said, she believes D.C.'s government should be cautious with spending.

“What you will see in my budget proposal is we don’t make huge new program investments, and that is the context that we entered this budget year in,” Bowser said. “And that, I hope, continues throughout the discussion.”

Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.