Metro Board Leans Toward Creating Targeted Discounts For Low-Income Riders The discussion comes after a presentation about a menu of ideas to attract riders and make fares more equitable.
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Metro Board Leans Toward Creating Targeted Discounts For Low-Income Riders

Doors open on a 7000-series Metro train car. Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist

The Metro Board appears to be leaning away from proposals to drastically alter its fare structure in favor of delivering targeted discounts for low-income riders.

The transit agency board met Thursday and half of the eight members said they thought pursuing a low-income pass would be a beneficial way to help riders. A program could provide half-off fares for those that qualify for programs like SNAP benefits or Medicaid. The discussion comes after a presentation about a menu of ideas to attract riders and make fares more equitable.

They included $1 bus fares, consolidating peak vs. off-peak pricing, reducing parking prices, a $4 flat fare for MetroAccess customers, a $2 flat fare after 9:30 p.m. every night, and tweaking monthly passes to be more flexible for new commute patterns.

But many board members — including D.C. member Lucinda Babers, a regular bus rider — said it's better to do a targeted approach for low-income riders rather than cut bus prices for everyone.

"Not everyone who rides the bus needs the reduced fare," Babers said. "I ride the bus, and I don't need the reduced fare. What I do want when I ride the bus is more frequent service, and reliable and faster service.

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"It would be my preference to really not look at the $1 bus fare, but to focus more on the low-income discount option."

Greg Slater, a board member from Maryland, agreed that price-sensitive customers aside, ridership is driven by safe, frequent, and reliable service. He also was in favor of a low-income discount program.

The Lab@DC was set to test a low-income fare pilot last year before the pandemic hit, but that has since been put on hold.

Slater would also like to see Metro create more flexible multi-day passes with longer expiration dates to cater to flexible work weeks after the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Virginia's representatives to the board, Paul Smedberg and Matt Letourneau say the board's primary responsibility is fiduciary.

"A lot of these concepts are attractive, they look attractive, I'm sure they would be popular with riders, but our most important responsibility is to ensure the system has the revenue it needs to continue to provide the service that we do," Letourneau said. "I want to make sure we're not going too far in the direction of going after ridership at the expense of revenue.

"Because ultimately, we know we have some looming really big looming challenges and I'm worried about the ability of our local governments and state governments to fill those gaps when they're coming."

Metro got $2.5 billion in federal aid from three congressional relief packages, which has kept the agency afloat while ridership remains only a third of what it was before the pandemic. Metro faces a looming $190-250 million deficit in 2024.

The board requested better data and analysis on how each proposal could help boost ridership, but staff said COVID ruined most models out there, so it's hard to predict.

The Metro staff will analyze some of the ideas more closely and the board will decide which to pursue in its next budget cycle that begins this fall before public input and a vote next spring. Changes would go into effect in July 2022.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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