Washington D.C. Council member proposes free public transit for residents

By Justin George March 1, 2020

The District could become the next U.S. city to make transit free under a proposal by a D.C. Council member that would give each resident $100 a month to use for public transportation.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said the plan would boost the region’s economy by helping businesses retain employees and recruit new customers who have been turned away by the city’s parking costs and traffic congestion.

Free transit also would remove one of the top obstacles to jobs for many low-income residents, and it would keep the city affordable and accessible to families of color who are being priced out, Allen said.

He said his plan would provide Metro with new fare revenue to keep the region’s preeminent transit system vibrant, and it would specifically target the beleaguered Metrobus system for improvements, creating a cash fund of about $10 million to boost service in some of the city’s neediest, transit-deprived corners.

The money to residents would be paid in the form of $100 in monthly SmarTrip card credits.

If it all sounds too pie-in-the-sky, Allen said it shouldn’t. He said the proposal would not require any cuts to city services or emergency savings. At an estimated cost of $54 million to $151 million a year, depending on factors that include usage and negotiated discounts, the program would be paid for with tax revenue above what the government budgets to spend annually.

Allen said tax revenue has consistently overshot projections the past five years, and that city officials expect that to continue.

“I think we need to put it right back into residents’ hand,” Allen said. “We are not raising taxes to do this.

The legislation, which Allen plans to announce later this week, is being co-introduced by seven council members, including Chairman Phil Mendelson (D); Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), chair of the Metro oversight committee; and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the panel’s transportation committee.

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The idea of making public transit free dates back decades, but it never really took off in large cities until recently. In the 1970s, Denver and Trenton, N.J., experimented with free rides during off-peak hours, and while the program increased ridership, it created too many problems and both cities discontinued their pilot programs after a year, according to a 2002 study by the National Center for Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

In 1989, Austin offered free transit across its system for one year. Ridership grew, but so did vandalism and onboard disturbances involving youth; the city also experienced overcrowded buses, additional costs to run extra buses, increased vehicle maintenance needs and complaints from longtime riders about an influx of homeless people taking up seats.

The nearly two-decade-old study said such programs would work on smaller scales, and have in college and ski towns, as well as in transit programs that target specific populations like commuters, students and the elderly.

Several big cities, including Baltimore and Denver, have made parts of their public transportation systems free. But shifting priorities toward fighting climate change, economic and racial inequity and traffic congestion have several urban cities to revisit the idea of free transit for all.

Kansas City, Mo., became the first large city to do so in January. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority created “Zero Fare KC,” an initiative that costs about $9 million but is expected to generate nearly double that amount in regional economic benefits, according to a study the agency and the University of Missouri Kansas City released last week.

Pilot program to test free fare and discounted Metro cards for low-income D.C. residents

“For those living paycheck to paycheck, as most Americans are, even an additional $50 per month of income can make the difference in deciding which bills to pay,” the study said.

Olympia, Wash., also made its system, Intercity Transit, free this year. A Boston council woman is pushing to make the city fare-free, while nearby Lawrence, Mass., is paying $225,000 over two years to waive fares on three major bus routes. Lawrence, like the District, does not control its main transit system, which is why Allen proposes $100 SmarTrip card credits every month rather than free boarding.

“We don’t control the ability to go fare-free,” Allen said, noting that Metro serves Maryland and Virginia as well. “We have to be creative in our solutions, and we have to lead.”

The District already provides all students between the ages of 5 and 21 free unlimited transit rides, subsidizing a “Kids Ride Free” program that paid for more than 60,000 SmarTrip cards, distributed through D.C. schools, in the past school year. This year, the program will cost the District about $22 million, with each card running about $367 each, Allen’s office said.

D.C. students will receive SmarTrip card to ride public transit free

This year, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) launched a $1 million research pilot that will distribute free and partly subsidized SmarTrip cards among 2,500 low-income public-transit users to help their job prospects and determine how much free fares could affect quality of life. A study Bowser’s administration released last week on the city’s nightlife industry found a lack of affordable transportation and parking are two of the biggest hindrances for both late-night service workers and businesses that employ them.

Helping lower-income residents is just one reason cities seem more inclined to provide free public transportation, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of public policy and mobility at the American Public Transportation Association.

In Columbia, S.C., officials are offering free rides to the polls. In Seattle, hockey tickets to a new arena under construction could come with a free transit ride to limit traffic downtown, he said.

“I think the trend is that the roadway network isn’t working, and cities are seeing that,” Guzzetti said. “The solution to a city that’s vibrant, a city that’s viable and a city that has more efficiency is not to build more road lanes.”

In 2018, Allen championed the District’s 2018 decision to decriminalize Metro fare evasion, and he has defended it since, saying those who skip fares largely do so because they cannot afford to pay. His two-part transportation proposal is targeted at bringing equity to District wards that are transit deserts, lacking in both Metro access and incomes sufficient to pay fares. Wards 5, 7 and 8 have median household incomes under $86,000, significantly lower than other wards, and are also among the furthest from the city’s job centers, Allen’s office said.

With rising operating costs, Metro has proposed increasing Metrorail fares next year while it tries to hold the line on bus fares. But the transit agency is proposing to cut or reduce service on dozens of routes, and Allen said he wants to end a cycle of declining ridership and fewer routes by creating a dedicated $10 million Metrobus fund to improve routes, frequency and shelters in the District that serve primarily low-income residents.

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The $100 monthly SmarTrip credits, meanwhile, would help stop declining ridership, he said. Any unused money would not accumulate, a cost-control mechanism to make sure money isn’t wasted.

“The program only costs as much as residents use it,” Allen wrote in the proposal. “If a resident only uses $30 of the $100 monthly balance, at the start of a new month, the cost would only be $30 to restore the balance to $100. For someone who did not use any of the balance, it would cost the District $0.”

D.C. residents who receive a federal employment commuting subsidy would not be eligible. The benefit would work on Metro, the D.C. Circulator and other regional transit lines where SmarTrip cards are used.

Estimates of what the program could cost are complicated, based on several calculations that take in a variety of factors, according to Allen’s office. Students already have free transit service, and not all adults in the District regularly use transit.

According to the latest Census Bureau estimates, about 130,000 D.C. commuters 16 and older use public transportation. Metro passenger surveys taken in 2016 and 2018 estimate that more than 370,000 bus and rail trips originate in the District each weekday.

Subtracting those already covered by the Kids Ride Free program and federal workers already receiving a commuter subsidy, Allen’s office believes the program would need to pay fares for about 118,000 D.C. residents.

The bill allows the mayor to negotiate fare payments to Metro, and Allen’s office said he expects the cost to come in closer to his low-end estimate than $151 million, which takes into account if every eligible resident used the entire benefit — which isn’t realistic.

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The money would come from revenue the District has generated that has exceeded its own service needs each quarter over the past five years thanks to the city’s explosive growth and rising property values.

City revenue this past quarter was up $79.8 million, Allen said. Between the 2015 and 2019 fiscal years, Allen’s office said, revenue increased by $738 million. The District’s financial estimates project revenue increasing by at least $331 million each year from fiscal 2021 to fiscal 2023, Allen said. The city has used the extra money to pay cash for capital projects and for a special housing trust fund that provides gap financing for affordable and low-income housing projects. That would not change, Allen said, as his program would use just a portion of the extra money.

Nonprofit providers who help lower-income residents said the transit subsidy is badly needed. “We think this initiative could be a game changer for the entire city and for people we serve in particular,” said Nechama Masliansky, senior advocacy adviser at So Others Might Eat. “[Metro’s] the lifeblood of the city and the lifeblood of the [regional] economy. Helping people get to food and their jobs, helping people take their kids to school, going to job training, getting to places of worship — it’s essential.”

Ian Duncan contributed to this report.227 CommentsJustin GeorgeJustin George is a reporter covering national transit and Metro, the D.C.-area public transportation system, for The Washington Post. He previously covered criminal justice for the Marshall Project and the Baltimore Sun. Follow