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DC Council Bill to Include Free Bus Fare

A DC Council bill will include provisions to make Metr buses free for riders within the District.

On Thursday morning DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen (D) announced the addition to provisions in the “Metro for DC” bill. The bill will go before council as emergency legislation next Tuesday, Dec. 6, to provide funding for the bill in order to begin the program in July 2023.

The cost to make bus service free is estimated at approximately $32 million and an additional $8.5 million is needed to extend overnight service. It is expected that the changes in bus service will begin July 1 of next year.

The bill will now also include significant updates for bus routes across the city.

“When I introduced Metro For DC almost three years ago, it was because I thought we could make public transit both more affordable and also dramatically improve service. Now that we’re recovering from the pandemic, it’s clear this would be a win for riders, a win for DC’s businesses, and a win for WMATA,” said Councilmember Allen.

“This is a big deal,” Chairman Mendelson said. “We’ll be the first major city in the United States to provide free bus service. This will be game changer for bus users; reliable schedules and faster boarding. There’s no question it will encourage more folks to use public transit, which means numerous benefits, from reducing congestion to improving the environment to stabilizing WMATA.”

The Legislation 

Metro For DC was first introduced by Council member Allen in 2020, and then re-introduced in October 2021. It was co-introduced by Chairman Mendelson along with eight members of the DC Council.

Additionally, the legislation would include the service reliability fund: a $10 million annual investment in improving bus service and infrastructure across the city.

Metro for DC will provide a recurring $100 per month subsidy to eligible District residents. That will still happen –just later.

When that is implemented, residents can utilize the subsidy for any system that uses SmarTrip including the metro, DC Circulator, VRE, Fairfax Connector, the Metrobus and more.

Making Impact Where Needed

“Public transit is a public good,” Allen said, when asked why the bill opted for free bus fare as opposed to using a means test. “I’m not going to means test your sidewalk or your roadway; if we believe transit is a public good, then its a public good.”

Allen said means testing would be expensive, but statistics also show that 70 percent of bus riders are low income so the implementation of the program immediately makes an immediate impact.

Both Allen and Mendelson emphasized that the immediate implementation of free transit would benefit those residents that need it most. According to a 2018  Washington Area Bus Transformation Project study, 53 percent of bus riders in the region live in low income households; 55 percent do not own a car. More than 80 percent identify as minorities.

However, while the $100 subsidy will be usable on all forms of SmarTrip transit, only MetroBus fares will be eliminated by the bill.

The DC Circulator, operated by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will still cost $1. Mayor Muriel Bowser suspended fees on the DC Circulator buses in March 2019; Council put a stop to that program six months later.

Mendelson said that DC Circulator would need to be considered separately but did not rule out making those free in future.

Bus Implementation First

The bill still proposes $100 monthly for Metrorail users, but the details of implementation still need to be worked out. It is included in the bill but is not part of the $40.5 allocated for free MetroBus fares.

It is easier to implement a subsidy for Metrobus than for Metrorail, Allen said, because the bus system only requires a single tap. Metrorail operates on a zoned system, requiring users to tap at the end of trips.

Mendelson said this is an important step, particularly for service workers, in the District.

“Workers in service industries that require them to get to work late at night or early in the morning who currently don’t have access to bus service will have access to bus service,” Mendelson said.

Mendelson called the proposal a “win-win all around” in that the elimination of bus fares, will create faster service as customers will not need to congregate near the fare box when boarding. He also noted that DC will be the first major city in the US to provide free bus service.

Allen echoed the Chairman’s enthusiasm about the opportunities these updates will provide for residents as COVID-19 recovery continues in the District.

“Making the bus fare free to fall of DC is the type of transformational change that we can lead – with a focus on equity and economic recovery,” Allen said. “It’ll make a difference keeping buses moving faster on our streets and in the monthly budgets of thousands of DC families.”

You can learn more about Metro for DC here.

Sarah Payne is a general assignment reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com. 

With additional reporting from Elizabeth O’Gorek.

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