Mar 2, 2023 - News

D.C.'s free Metrobus plan faces funding roadblock

People wait for Metro bus

Photo: Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The District’s plan for free Metrobus service has been set back due to the city’s worsening financial outlook.

Driving the news: The city does not have enough excess sales tax revenue to fund the program, according to a quarterly report from the District’s chief financial officer, Glen Lee.

Why it matters: The nation’s capital aimed to be the largest city in the country to offer free Metrobus service when it approved the program last December.

State of play: The program, slated to launch this summer, hinged on the District producing excess revenue. While D.C. over the past decade has gotten used to generating oodles of cash, empty office buildings downtown has hurt tax revenues.

  • The District’s economy is also feeling the same forces currently dragging down the national economy, such as higher interest rates, according to Lee.

The intrigue: In a statement yesterday, council member Charles Allen expressed concern about Lee's "pattern of vastly underestimating District revenues" and along with council chair Phil Mendelson announced they want the council’s budget office and general counsel to scrutinize the report — in hopes of finding additional projected revenue.

Threat level: If the fare-free program is put on ice, Metro’s bottom line could take a hit.

  • The transit agency is struggling with budgetary challenges that are largely due to decreased ridership, and is in part relying on ridership recovery for a revenue boost. Metro projects it'll make $68 million from bus passenger revenue this fiscal year, up from $59 million projected during the last fiscal year.
  • Metro did not provide comment and directed our request to the District Department of Transportation.

What we're watching: The D.C. Council could still cut from other programs to find over $50 million needed annually for the free bus program, but that would still likely delay its launch to 2024 at the earliest.

  • Plus, lawmakers will have to contend with a tricky budget process where schools, public safety, and other programs all compete for funding.

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