WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — The District is one step closer to free bus service and would make the nation’s capital the first major city to make public bus service completely free. The D.C. Council is working to advance two bills that would make Metro bus service free for all riders.
Free bus service is just a portion of what riders can expect in the coming months as the council builds on the Metro for D.C. Act.
The Fare-Free Bus Funding Emergency Act would mean anyone could ride free on all Metro buses in the District. The act would also create overnight service on some of the District’s busiest bus routes. Free rides could come as early as July 2023. The free and extended bus service would be available to all riders including visitors and people experiencing homelessness.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen explained that the expansion of service is not a pilot program but would be a permanent system in the District.
The legislation would greatly benefit people like Antoine Stevenson who is experiencing homelessness and relies on buses to travel to different shelters in the District.
“It costs two dollars to ride the bus and that’s two dollars I could be using for something else,” Stevenson explained.
The Fare-Free Bus Funding Emergency Act builds on the Metro for D.C. Act. The legislation would also create a $100 subsidy for Metrorail for all D.C. riders. The subsidy could be used for train rides, buses outside of the District, or anywhere Smartrip is accepted.
The Metro for D.C. Act would also create a $10 million bus service improvement fund which would be used for annual improvements on bus lanes, bus shelters, and other improvements to bus service.
However, any advancements on the subsidy and the rest of the Metro for D.C. Act will be coming in the next council period which starts in January.
“Free transit of course is only as good as the frequency and the reliability of that service,” Councilmember Allen explained. “It’s an investment in better service and ensures that WMATA will have what it needs to help earn riders back.”
This expansion would only apply to Metro buses, not city-owned Circulator buses. Mayor Muriel Bowser previously tried to make Circulator buses free but the measure was shot down by D.C. Council.
Chairman Mendelson explained that this proposal came when the council was facing revenue shortfalls and financial struggles but highlights this could be a step in the right direction to expanding free public transit service on other modes of transportation.
“The two bills together with the funding mechanism is to provide free bus service in the District,” Chairman Phil Mendelson explained. “Not free bus service for a month, or for a season, or for a year, but to provide free bus service.”
Some riders who spoke with DC News Now reporter Katie Rhee were optimistic and excited at the prospect of free and extended bus service, like Taylor Brown.
Brown excitedly explained that she just moved to the District from Kansas and has loved riding public transit after solely relying on cars. Although she described riding the Metro to a scene out of a movie, she isn’t enjoying the cost of riding the Metro every day and says the rides are starting to add up.
“I loved that it cost me around 4 to 7 dollars, but now that I’m traveling a little bit more, I’m in the city, the Metro is starting to add up to where a car might sound a little bit better,” Brown explained. “But I don’t want a car. I want to use the Metro.”
Columbia Heights resident Sam Farber doesn’t use public transit very often. He explains that he has a car that he drives into the city but then parks it and tries to ride his bike as much as possible. But he would be more inclined to use the free bus service if and when it is implemented.
“If I could catch a bus at any time during the day or night, it would really disuade me from using my car,” Farber said. “I would much prefer to either take my bike or public transit.”
Jon Moore, who now lives in Baltimore, relied on Metro trains and buses when he worked in Reston. He explained that his commute was over two hours each way and on some occasions even had to choose between paying for his transit ticket or buying food.
He recalls that the financial burden created a huge stress point in his life and says the expansion bridges the accessibility gap and creates more equity to transit across the District.
“By local municipalities, D.C. or otherwise, to make these types of public resources more readily available to citizens, it certainly does start to level the playing field a little bit for those who may not be in the same socio-economic conditions,” Moore explained.
This expansion will cost around $40 million to put into place; around $32 million for the free bus service and around $8.5 million to extend overnight service. The D.C. Council is going to determine how to fund this during an emergency legislative session this coming Tuesday.