DC lawmakers propose free bus service throughout district as Metro battles fare evasion

A Metro bus, Washington D.C., Wednesday, Dec 14, 2011
Metro added a new express bus and extended service for several existing routes Sunday as part of a $5 million push to improve its bus options. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner) Graeme Jennings

DC lawmakers propose free bus service throughout district as Metro battles fare evasion

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Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are proposing to allow public transit users to ride city-run buses at no charge, aiming to become the first major city in the country to offer free bus service for all its residents.

The proposal, announced by City Council members on Thursday, would designate projected revenue growth to go toward the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to pay for free bus service and expand its schedule to provide overnight service on 12 major bus lines. If passed, the legislation would take effect by next summer, according to lawmakers.

DC METRO BEGINS ISSUING HEFTY FINES FOR FARE EVASION

“This is a big deal,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “We’ll be the first major city in the United States to provide free bus service. This will be a 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 measure to provide free bus service will be attached to a larger bill making its way through the D.C. Council known as the “Metro for DC Bill,” introduced in mid-September. That piece of legislation aims to make public transit more affordable by providing a $100 monthly subsidy to district residents to go toward transportation costs, including the Metrorail and WMATA buses.

The Metro for DC bill was first introduced nearly three years ago, but the legislation stalled as the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced the number of riders using public transportation.

“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 Councilman Charles Allen, who initially introduced the legislation. “Making the bus fare free for all of DC is the type of transformational change that we can lead, with a focus on equity and economic recovery. It’ll make a difference keeping buses moving faster on our streets and in the monthly budgets of thousands of DC families.”

The free bus service would be funded through emergency legislation that provides a steady stream of revenue to WMATA, covering the agency’s transportation costs, according to the council members. Those funds include approximately $32 million to offer free bus rides and an additional $8.5 million to extend into overnight service.

WMATA has been cracking down on citywide fare evasion that has contributed to significant revenue losses for the agency, causing a $185 million shortfall in next year’s budget. Metro relies on fare revenue to maintain its bus and rail service, and the agency has faced threats from regional leaders to withhold subsidies if WMATA doesn’t address its fare evasion problem.

The agency responded by issuing hefty fines to riders who are caught trying to ride without paying, ticketing riders up to $50 in Washington locations and up to $100 for those in Virginia and Maryland. If the legislation passes, it could help with this funding dilemma, WMATA officials say.

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“We appreciate the DC Council’s leadership and commitment to making transit more accessible for our customers,” a spokesperson for the agency told the Washington Examiner. “These are big bold concepts that will encourage ridership throughout the region. We look forward to working with the Council and the Mayor on this legislation as it moves forward.”

Lawmakers are set to vote on the bill during its monthly legislative meeting on Tuesday. If it passes, free bus service will begin to be offered to district residents on July 1.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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