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DC unveils bold plan to boost public transit

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare for the District of Columbia and other major cities that public transit is a lifeline for essential workers and that even modest fares can be a burden on them. The national capital is therefore launching a revolutionary plan: it will begin offering free bus tickets to residents next summer.

Other cities, including Los Angeles and Kansas City, Missouri, suspended fare collection at the height of the pandemic to minimize human contact and ensure residents with no other travel options could access jobs and services in the hospitals, grocery stores and offices.

But DC’s permanent free rate plan will be by far the most important, at a time when big cities like Boston and Denver and states like Connecticut consider broader zero rate policies to improve fairness and help restore the goodwill that has been lost with the rise of remote and hybrid working. Los Angeles instituted free fares in 2020 before recently resuming passenger billing. Lately, LA Metro tested a fare cap plan under which transit riders pay for their rides until they reach a set amount and then ride for free after that, though new mayor Karen Bass suggested supporting the permanent abolition of tariffs.

Bus fairs will be hectic in DC on July 1, 2022.

Analysts say DC’s free fare system provides a good test case for how public transit can be reshaped for a post-pandemic future.

“If DC demonstrates that it increases ridership, reduces the cost burden on low-income people, and improves the quality of transit service in terms of speed of bus service and reduces the number of cars on the road, it could be a smashing success,” said Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “We just don’t know yet if that would happen.”

The $2 fares will be waived for passengers boarding Metrobuses within the city limits starting around July 1. who usually had to rely on expensive carpooling to get home after the subway and bus system shut down at night.

A new $10 million fund for annual investments in DC bus lanes, shelters and other improvements was also approved to make rides faster and more reliable.

“The district is ready to be a national leader in the future of public transit,” said DC Councilmember Charles Allen, who first offered free fares in 2019 and says the program can be fully paid for with excess DC tax revenue. Approximately 85% of bus riders are DC residents. The subway system also serves nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

About 68% of DC residents who ride the bus have household incomes below $50,000, and riders are disproportionately black and Latino compared to Metrorail riders, according to the board’s budget analysis.

People board the bus.
Not everyone is for the free transit rides in the nation’s capital.

Not everyone is a fan.

Peter Van Doren, principal investigator at the DC-based Cato Institute, said the plan risked high costs and mixed results, noting that the opportunity to improve ridership may be limited as bus passengers have been faster to return to near pre-pandemic levels. He said government subsidies to help low-income people buy cars would go further because not everyone has easy access to public transport, which operates on fixed routes.

“The beauty of automobiles is that they can go anywhere and everywhere in a way that mass transit cannot,” he said. “We don’t know the subset of low-income people in DC where public transit is a wonderful option as opposed to a not-so-wonderful option.”

The council’s decision, which will be finalized in a second vote later this month, has raised concerns from DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who supports the concept of free fares but raised questions about the annual cost of $42 million long term. “District residents and taxpayers will have to pay for this program,” she wrote in a letter to council members. “Our neighbors, Virginia and Maryland, are expected to absorb some of these costs as their residents will also benefit from this program.”

Allen had also proposed a $100 monthly transit benefit for DC residents to access the Metrorail system, but put the plan on hold until at least fall 2024 due to the estimated annual cost of $150 million. . He described the free bus tickets as a “win-win-win” for the district as it will help the transit system recover and provide affordable, environmentally friendly travel while boosting the economic activity in the city centre.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which currently faces a budget shortfall of $185 million, some of which is attributed to fare evasion, called the plan “bold.” He said he looked forward to working with the city council, mayor and regional stakeholders “towards our goal of providing a more accessible and equitable service to our customers.”

people getting on an SC bus.
In 2019, fares accounted for more than 40% of total transit revenue, but have since dropped to 25% since the pandemic.

Nationally, while transit ridership is back to about 79% of pre-pandemic levels, that figure varies widely by region. In New York, for example, MTA Chief Executive Janno Lieber has suggested that city and state governments step in to pay for trains and buses more like essential public services, such as a service fire, citing millions of transit riders who he says may never come. return. In 2019, fares made up more than 40% of total transit revenue, but have since dropped to 25%, leading to a projected deficit of $2.5 billion in 2025 as well as the risk of soon exhausting transit funds. Federal transportation authority COVID relief.

In DC, where bus fares represent only a modest 7% of total transit operating revenue, the transit agency may be able to more easily absorb losses from zero fares, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of mobility initiatives and public policy for the American Public Transportation Association. . He noted the savings to city ratepayers from speeding up boarding, which could allow for more routes and stops, as well as reducing traffic congestion and eliminating the need to enforce public transport against fraudsters.

Currently, DC bus ridership is around 74% of pre-pandemic weekday levels, compared to 40% for Metrorail.

Still, free fares can be a tough choice for cities. “If the consequence of a zero-fare program is that you have less funds to invest in frequent service, then you’re backing off,” Guzzetti said.

In Kansas City, which began offering zero fares for its buses in March 2020 and has no planned end date, officials said the program helped boost ridership, which rose 13% in 2022 so far compared to the previous year. The free fares represent an $8 million revenue loss, with the city paying more than half and federal COVID aid covering the rest through 2023, said Kansas City acting vice president Cindy Baker. Area Transportation Authority, which describes the program. as a success.

The program has eliminated altercations between passengers and bus drivers over fares, although there have been more cases of disputes between passengers due to an increase in the number of homeless people, according to the agency. . Baker said the transit agency added security in response to some passenger complaints.

Ché Ruddell-Tabisola, director of government affairs for the Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Association, hailed the free rates as a much-needed economic boost, showing DC’s commitment to the well-being of late-night bartenders and restaurant workers. restaurant who need an affordable way to get home.

“Many industries have given up on the pandemic, but for bars and restaurants in DC, the pandemic is still happening every day,” he said, citing the effects of hybrid working, inflation, violence army and other factors that hollowed out the city center. . “Anything that encourages diners to come to downtown DC and enjoy the world-class dining and entertainment we offer is a good thing.”

New York Post

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