Metro For DC is the shorthand name for the Metro For DC Amendment Act of 2021, a bill from DC Councilmember Charles Allen that proposes two significant measures:
1. A dedicated fund that will channel millions into improving bus service by creating new bus routes, reducing time between buses, building more dedicated bus lanes, and other improvements to make buses work better. It will focus on making these improvements first in communities that have been overlooked for serious transit investments and tend to have lower-income riders who depend on bus service as their primary means of transportation.
2. A new program where DC residents can sign up to receive a $100 monthly balance on a SmarTrip card. The balance would never exceed $100, which helps limit costs and ensure the District is only paying when residents choose to ride public transit.
Learning from other cities' experiences trying to make public transit free, we saw that while price is important for many people, service needs to be better, reliable, and predictable. That is why along with the subsidy, there is a special fund dedicated to better bus service.
So is this free public transit?
No, not quite. People still have to pay fares and swipe their card. But this proposal would give DC residents a $100 balance each month on a registered SmarTrip card. Many free public transit proposals simply stop collecting fares. Right now, that's not likely to happen in the region with Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government needing to agree. And doing it this way still preserves the fundamental need for WMATA to earn those riders by maintaining and improving service.
Everything I've read says free public transit doesn't grow ridership as much as improving service.
Agreed! That's why this bill also includes a substantial commitment to improving bus service to make it reliable, faster, and predictable. Specifically, it focuses on transit equity by improving bus service first in communities who have the longest commutes, often pay more per trip, and mostly live in low-income neighborhoods. But the goal of Metro for DC isn't just about growing ridership - it's also about making our transit system more accessible for every DC resident.
Would I be able to use this anywhere else besides WMATA?
Yes, you can use it on any regional public transit system that accepts SmarTrip. That includes the DC Circulator, VRE, The Bus, the Fairfax Connector, and more.
Would Maryland and Virginia residents be able to sign up?
No, this is a program that would be funded and run by the DC government for DC residents. Residency would be verified in many of the same ways we already do for schools or other benefits reserved for DC residents.
I'd love to sign up, but I don't think I would use all $100. Can I give that back?
The program is set up as a monthly $100 balance. That means the balance will always return to $100, never more than that. So it helps control for costs for riders who might not use the whole, or any of, the subsidy. If you only use $20, it only costs $20 to return you to $100.
My children are both DCPS students who use Kids Ride Free. Would this replace Kids Ride Free?
No, this program would be for adults who are not enrolled in Kids Ride Free. It would not change the Kids Ride Free program in any manner.
I currently receive a federal employee transit benefit. Am I eligible for this program?
No. If any DC resident is receiving or eligible to receive a subsidy from the federal or a state or local government (including the DC Council), they are not eligible for Metro For DC's subsidy.
Does this mean WMATA is going to raise fares on everyone else to pay for this?
No, this does not change the revenue WMATA collects at all. The DC government would be giving DC residents $100 on a SmarTrip. If anything, it gives WMATA a great opportunity to earn new riders who suddenly have $100 to spend on public transit services. It's a market-based approach that gets WMATA and other agencies the opportunity to earn those riders. Hopefully that includes being more responsive to service improvements from those very riders.
Does this effect the recent dedicated funding DC, Maryland, and Virginia agreed to with WMATA?
No, this would be separate from the dedicated funding agreement.
I really like this idea. But I don't think we should pay for wealthy people to ride the Metro. Why not limit it to those who need it?
First, it's important to say that public transit is for everyone and should be used by everyone. We don't means test our schools, libraries, roads or sidewalks, right? It's a public good and it's important not to send a message that it is only for people who can't afford other ways to get around.
Second, the bill prioritizes lower-income residents in a number of ways. First, the subsidy would be rolled out in four tiers. The first would be to residents earning 300% above the federal poverty line or less. Next, it would be families earning less than the area median income, about $96,000. So we would start paying for the benefit for those who need it first, before we offer it to everyone else. Also, the dedicated bus fund prioritizes all investment into communities that have long been overlooked for serious investment as a commitment to transit equity.
Finally, keep in mind if a wealthy resident signs up, but never actually rides, it doesn't cost money. Remember, the program is structured only around actual usage. But if they do ride more, it is objectively a good thing to get more people riding public transit -- better for our neighborhoods . It's better for congestion and fewer cars. It's better for cleaner air. It helps more people get to businesses without having to find parking. Increased ridership will create more demand of improve service. But it's also just better because it brings people together in a common place, as neighbors.