- Last week, the District of Columbia city council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment unanimously supported a bill that, if passed by the full committee, would put $100 on D.C. residents’ transit cards each month.
- The Metro for D.C. Amendment Act aims to increase ridership and shore up the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which faces an estimated $185 million budget shortfall between 2023 and 2024.
- While the original bill would have limited the subsidy to low- and middle-income transit riders, the current legislation makes the assistance available to eligible city residents regardless of income.
WMATA, the regional transit authority of the Washington metro area, has acute financial troubles thanks to reduced metro and bus ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, increasing transit ridership “supports several other District priorities related to traffic safety, health and the climate,” according to the committee report on the legislation.
The bill’s supporters hope to address all these issues simultaneously by funding resident transit subsidies as an investment in WMATA. But the transit agency will only benefit if the service is reliable enough to attract riders. “Ultimately, [this bill] means each rider will be deciding to invest in Metro’s future and the system they want to see,” Councilmember Charles Allen said in a statement.
The proposed legislation would create a virtually universal program that is somewhat distinct in the U.S. since the $100 transit subsidy would go to all Washington, D.C., residents not enrolled in a transit subsidy program.
That’s unusual because most cities offering reduced-fare transit programs target riders based on their income, with many basing reduced fares on the federal poverty guidelines. For instance, Denver, Colorado, reduces transit fares for those earning no more than 185% of the poverty level — or roughly $42,600. Other cities reduce fares based on participation in public assistance programs; Dallas, Texas, allows people receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to purchase standard transit passes at lower rates.
If the legislation passes, riders would simply need to prove their residency to get the subsidy. “We need universal support for transit,” said Alex Baca, District of Columbia policy director at Greater Greater Washington, who supports the bill. “We want people of all income levels riding transit.”
An analysis by the city council’s budget office found that the subsidy would disproportionately benefit low-income people since riders are likelier to have low or moderate incomes. In addition, riders earning $100,000 or more are five times more likely than those earning less than $20,000 to have an employer-provided transit subsidy. According to the analysis, Washington, D.C. residents earning less than the metro area median income would spend roughly two-thirds of subsidy funds.
The cost of the legislation is estimated to be $373 million for the first four years of implementation. It will be funded by future, unbudgeted city revenues.