2021 | Transit

County Council to introduce bill that would reduce Ride On fares

Fare-free period has been extended until Jan. 1

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The Montgomery County Council will introduce legislation on Tuesday that lowers the standard Ride On fare from $2 to $1, starting in January.

Ride On has been free since the COVID-19 pandemic started in mid-March 2020. The council voted last week to extend the free period until Jan. 1.

The bill being introduced Tuesday would:

  • Lower the basic fare of $2 to $1
  • Lower the fare of express routes from $4.25 to $1
  • Lower the cost of a monthly pass from $45 to $22.50

The new fare structure would take effect on Jan. 2.

The county’s Department of Transportation conducted a fare equity study during the last two months. It analyzed how reducing Ride On fares long term would affect ridership, revenue, service and the environment, County Executive Marc Elrich wrote in a memo to Council President Tom Hucker on Sept. 27.

The study examined four scenarios:

  • Continuing to provide Ride On free at all times
  • Continue to provide Ride On free on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays
  • Reducing the standard fare to $1
  • Offering reduced fares for low-income riders

Elrich wrote to Hucker that the option of lowering the standard fare to $1 “is among the easiest to communicate to transit customers and avoids the county incurring a substantial cost and lost time to implement an entirely new program.”

Elrich wrote that implementing a means-tested reduced fare program has historically been done on a regional basis, according to “peer agencies” and that such a program would be “the preferred long term solution.” He added that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board has been discussing a $1 reduced fare for Metrobus.

Because Ride On users can use their SmarTrip card, WMATA requires at least 60 days’ notice prior to any fare changes, according to a press release from the county DOT. Because of the requirement, Elrich recommended that the council extend the fare holiday through the end of the year, which it did on Sept. 28.

According to the study, the median income of Ride On users is about $35,000, based on data from a 2018 passenger survey. That’s about one-third of the county’s median household income of $108,000.

A chart in the study using data from before the pandemic shows that more than a quarter of Ride On “riders/households” reported an annual income of less than $20,000. 

“These pre-COVID survey results are now likely to be even more skewed towards lower-income riders, as inquiries conducted by peer agencies have shown that riders who have continued to use transit during the pandemic, and who have come back as its effects became less pronounced, are more likely to be lower income and transit-reliant,” it states.

Hucker, during a media briefing Monday morning, noted that frontline workers have relied heavily on Ride On throughout the pandemic.

“We did not see the drop-off in ridership on Ride On that we saw on Metro rail as many low-income and essential workers needed to get to work,” he said.

If the council introduces the fare restructuring legislation on Tuesday, a public hearing will take place later this month.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com