2021 | Government

UPDATED: Council extends free RideOn bus service through early July

County executive supported restoring fares, but cutting them from $2 to $1 per ride

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This story was updated on Dec. 1, 2021, to add more information about Empower Montgomery and its founder, Charles Nulsen.

The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a resolution on Tuesday keeping RideOn bus service free countywide through at least July 2, 2022.

Fares have been free since March 16, 2020, to help essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The standard fare for RideOn is $2 for a single trip.

Eight council members voted to approve the resolution. The ninth council member, Will Jawando, was absent.

County Executive Marc Elrich recommended to the County Council in May 2020 that a fare equity study should be completed for RideOn, according to council staff documents. Upon completion of that report, Elrich recommended that fares should be restored, but reduced from $2 to $1.

Because of this, Elrich was targeted in a campaign flyer released by Empower Montgomery, a political organization.

Empower Montgomery has had ties to businessman David Blair, a Democrat running against Elrich in next year’s primary for county executive. Blair has said he used to be a member of Empower Montgomery and has donated money to it.

In another campaign flyer, Empower Montgomery publicly praised Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker, the other two candidates in the Democratic primary for county executive, for their support of a Silver Spring Business Improvement District.

Empower Montgomery founder Charles Nulsen previously donated to Riemer’s and Hucker’s campaigns.

The RideOn flyer stated that Elrich was against supporting lower-income residents and essential workers because of his position. However, Elrich said in a recent interview that he favors reducing RideOn fares, but not eliminating them because of a lack of federal funding to help alleviate revenue loss in the county. 

According to the fare equity study, keeping RideOn free would result in an annual cost of $35.9 million for the county.

Of that, $20.5 million will be in direct revenue lost and $15.4 million will be needed to pay WMATA to help pay for its expenses to allow Metrobus to also be free in the county.

Although Metrobus serves Washington, D.C., some of its routes are in parts of Montgomery County. 

If Elrich’s option were approved, the annual cost to the county would be $18.4 million — $11.2 million in RideOn revenue lost and $7.2 million in added Metrobus costs. 

Council Member Evan Glass, who helped finalize the fare-waiver extension, said the proposal is an issue of equity — many who use RideOn are both essential workers and low-income workers.

It also will help with the county’s climate goals by reducing vehicular traffic, he said.

“If we continue the elimination of fares and having a fare-free holiday for at least an active remainder of this fiscal year, it will allow our riders who are hard working to use those funds to pay rent, to pay food, [and] provide child care,” Glass said.

“If we want to use this pandemic as an opportunity to not only build back better,” he said, referring to the name of a federal investment initiative, “but build back more equitably, having fare-free buses will go a long way.”

Managing Editor Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com