Dec 14, 2022 - News
Town Talker

How D.C.'s $100 Metro subsidy got put on ice

Inside of a mostly empty Metro train

The bus program would cost much less than the SmarTrip stipend. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The plan to give D.C. residents $100 monthly SmarTrip stipends has taken a backseat to free Metrobus service across the city.

Why it matters: D.C. wants to make it easier and cheaper to get around our expensive city, especially since data shows 68% of bus riders have household incomes below $50,000.

  • Plus, the proposals to cover bus and train fares come as the transit system is facing a $185 million budget deficit.

Catch up quick: Ward 6 council member Charles Allen had proposed giving an estimated 207,000 D.C. residents a $100 monthly allowance to use on the Metro train and bus.

  • Allen and the council this month decided to advance a different plan offering free Metrobus service, kicking the SmarTrip stipend a few years down the road.

What I’m hearing: The shift occurred after D.C.’s member on the Metro board, Tracy Hadden Loh, shared during a meeting last month with WMATA general manager Randy Clarke and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson longstanding concerns she harbored about the SmarTrip idea.

  • Hadden Loh tells Axios she was worried about the feasibility of sending and tracking SmarTrip cards belonging to thousands of eligible residents. “My concern was people were just dismissing these administrative and logistical burdens when they are massive.”
  • Hadden Loh also raised the potential for fraud if D.C. residents tried to sell online their subsidized SmartTrip cards.

Clarke and Mendelson were sympathetic to the concerns. They floated another idea: If D.C. wants to help Metro, the city should cover the cost of Metrobus.

  • It helped that the bus program would cost about $146 million over four years, much less than the $259 million needed over the same time for the SmarTrip stipend, according to the council's latest analysis.

The other side: Mayor Muriel Bowser hasn’t warmed up to the free bus bill, and it remains uncertain if she will support funding down the line for the even more ambitious SmarTrip subsidy.

What they're saying: Allen tells Axios that he's still optimistic the SmarTrip subsidy will find funding within two years. He also thinks guardrails can be put in place to deter fraud.

  • But by 2025, lawmakers may dial down the $100 subsidy to account for the spending on buses. “I think we just won’t know until we see how” the free bus service goes, said Evan Cash, an aide to Mendelson.

💬 Town Talker is a weekly column on local politics and power. Drop me a line about the talk of the town: [email protected]


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