New York Offers Half-Price Transit To Low-Income Residents. Why Doesn't D.C.? Any hope for half-priced Metro fares to be offered in the Washington region seem to be dwindling, with a fare hike included in the transit system's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.
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New York Offers Half-Price Transit To Low-Income Residents. Why Doesn't D.C.?

New York Offers Half-Price Transit To Low-Income Residents. Why Doesn't D.C.?

Fair Fares NYC is a city program to help New Yorkers with low incomes manage their transportation costs. It includes a 50% discount on subway and bus fares. Could a similar program work in the Washington region? Frank Franklin II/AP Photo hide caption

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Frank Franklin II/AP Photo

Since the start of the year, New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line have been able to ride public transit for half price.

The city program is an effort to alleviate the struggle for those who have trouble affording New York's high cost of living. So far, nearly 80,000 people have purchased the discount MetroCards. And the city is preparing to expand the program to even more people, as lawmakers, advocates and residents realize that access to affordable transit provides myriad benefits and could help reduce fare evasion.

This raises a question: "Why isn't there something like this in D.C.?"

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"Two words: political will," says Katherine Kortum, a member of Metro's Riders Advisory Council. "There's a lack of desire to significantly change the fare system, as far as I can tell."

Metro does offer some discounts. Seniors and people with disabilities pay $1 for regular Metrobus routes instead of the standard $2. And students going to school get free rides on Metrobus, DC Circulator, and Metrorail within the District.

But even with Washington's high cost of living, there's no program focused on helping low-income residents pay transit fares.

"We will be considering all kinds of programs in the approach to my budget, but we don't have a particular plan to make transit free for everybody," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told WAMU in response to a question about New York's program (it doesn't make transit free for all).

What Would It Take To Offer The Discount In The District?

Already, it can be confusing to figure out how much a trip will cost and to budget accordingly. While Metrobus fares are steady — $2 for regular routes and $4.25 for express — Metrorail fares vary by time of day and the distance between stations.

These rates could change soon. And if there was any hope for income-based discounts, it's now dwindling.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is proposing a budget for the coming fiscal year that would increase peak fares, offer a flat weekend fare of $2 and expand late-night service for the first time since 2016. The plan would also make transfers between bus and rail free, instead of the current $1.50.

"None of us like to raise fares and charge more, particularly during this period where we're still proving to the community that Metro should be an option of choice," says Christian Dorsey, a Metro board member and chair of the Arlington County board. "We have to recognize that several years ago Metro was underperforming — it was unreliable and certainly wasn't as safe as it should be — and we don't want to be in the business of pricing people out."

Dorsey says he'd like to see each jurisdiction in the region come up with its own plan to subsidize transit for low-income riders. For instance, he says, some of Arlington County's Department of Human Services clients already receive pre-loaded SmartTrip cards, depending on their level of need.

"I think what makes it easier in New York is that you're talking about one governmental entity and a transit agency. Easy conversation," says Dorsey.

Inside D.C.'s Capitol South Metro station. Friscocali/Flickr hide caption

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The Benefits Of Support Programs

Economic security programs can have a long-term impact on low-income individuals and families. According to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, federal and state safety net programs lift an estimated 82,000 Washingtonians above the poverty line each year, reducing the poverty rate from 33% to 19%. "Means-tested programs," which tie eligibility to a person's income — such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and housing assistance — also reduce poverty considerably, especially among the non-elderly.

Dorsey says it would be a muddy path forward implementing a transit subsidy program in the District. Metro would need to figure out details like who is eligible to participate and which department is best suited to run the program. But the overall idea, he says, "isn't out of the realm of possibility."

"We are going to have the conversation at Metro. Let's just put it that way. It is going to be something that's on the agenda. I get to say so with confidence," Dorsey says.

How NYC's Half-Priced MetroCard Program Works

According to city officials, New York's pilot program was created with its most vulnerable residents in mind.

"For families who might be working one or even two or more jobs just to get by, we wanted to make sure that transportation wasn't the cost that made it even more difficult for them," says Isaac McGinn of the New York City Department of Social Services. As the agency that administers public benefits and other resources to low-income residents, McGinn says his office works in partnership with the city council to operate the transit discount program.

To be eligible for the half-priced cards, participants are required to be employed while receiving SNAP or Cash Assistance benefits from the city. The program was recently expanded to include students, and come January, more New Yorkers who live at or below the poverty level will be able to apply through an open enrollment process.

"Expanding our understanding of what 'making ends meet' means, I think is absolutely part of what motivated this process," McGinn says. "And believing that this is a priority, hearing it right from our clients and hearing it from our constituents."

Other Ways To Help Low-Income Transit Riders

Low-income riders in D.C. often find themselves scraping funds from other household budgets to afford transit or skipping fare boxes at train stations and on buses altogether. Still, it seems a half-off transit discount is not on the District government's radar.

The mayor has made recent efforts to help low-income residents manage their transportation costs. She removed the $1 fare for the DC Circulator from last spring through the fall and Bowser also launched a pilot program that gave Ward 7 and 8 residents free taxi rides to Metro stations and nearby grocery stores.

According to Katherine Kortum, riders have long protested the $1.50 transfer fee from bus to rail and welcome Wiedefeld's proposal to eliminate it. And she says until the measure is approved, many residents will continue taking longer bus trips to avoid the added cost of connecting to a train.

Kortum says "fare capping" should also be considered: the concept of charging SmartTrip card users until they reach the equivalent of what their weekly or monthly pass would cost — and then all trips beyond that point would be free.

"Essentially, you're paying for your pass over time since a lot of people don't have the money up front to pay for a weekly or monthly pass," says Kortum. " But if you can have them build up to the cost of it, then that makes it possible for them to have the same benefits that are available to the higher income person who does have the money up front to go ahead and pay for the pass."

"And if you can encourage more and more people to be shifting to the monthly pass, whether it be an upfront cost or by virtue of doing it across the course of the month, then it makes the marginal cost of their trips essentially zero," Kortum adds.

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