This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. May 17, 2022, to clarify and correct details about the County Council’s vote last week.
As Montgomery County officials consider the future of bus fares on the county’s Ride On system, the County Council gave preliminary approval that fares should remain free for at least another year.
Last week, the council approved keeping fares free for Ride On bus service through late June 2023 in a 7-1 vote (Council Member Craig Rice voted against and Council Member Nancy Navarro was absent). The council decided, however, not to subsidize Metrobus, so fares for will remain $2 per ride.
The council, through its vote last week, approved placing the item on a reconciliation list, meaning that it needs to be approved again by the council before its final vote on the proposed operating budget.
County Council President Gabe Albornoz told reporters during a news briefing Monday that council members would take a straw vote on the overall budget Thursday, and that final formal action would occur in the coming weeks. That would include what to do about future Ride On fares.
Ride On bus service is operated by Montgomery County and runs on roughly 500 miles countywide. Metrobus is operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) — which also operates Metrorail — and has more than 20 routes along several major corridors in the county.
The council’s Transportation and Environment committee — consisting of Council Member Tom Hucker, who serves as chair; Council Vice President Evan Glass; and Council Member Hans Riemer — voted 2-1 to extend free Ride On but keep Metrobus at $2. Hucker and Glass voted to support this option; Riemer wanted $1.50 fares for Ride On and Metrobus fares.
According to council staff reports, keeping Ride On free but Metrobus at $2 per ride would cost the county about $9.8 million in fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1 and runs through June 20, 2023. Riemer’s option would have saved the county roughly $1.1 million. County Executive Marc Elrich had initially proposed $1 fare for Ride On and $2 for Metrobus in his budget, which is roughly $6.3 billion.
Albornoz agreed with Glass and others that Ride On should be free, noting that ridership has increased while free fares have been the county’s policy during the coronavirus pandemic. If the county eventually decides to make Ride On free permanently, then county officials will need to look at saving money elsewhere in the budget in order to make that possible, Albornoz added.
During last week’s meeting, Glass said that continuing free fares for Ride On passengers was an equity issue.
“It is undeniable that the best indicator of an individual’s economic potential is through access to reliable transportation,” he said.
Hucker agreed, adding that it is not the county’s responsibility to subsidize WMATA. Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, which already fund WMATA, should be the entities required to meet the transit agency’s funding needs, he added.
WMATA has had serious budget challenges for years, but the county should focus on operating and paying for its own service, Hucker said.
Riemer, however, said that keeping Ride On fares free but not subsidizing Metrobus service created its own equity issue. Some of the Metrobus routes in the county are some of the busiest bus corridors countywide, he said.
Even though he supported the committee’s recommendation last week, he was concerned that free Ride On bus service would prove to be too costly for the county, and that it would unfairly impact those who use WMATA’s bus service instead because they won’t benefit from the free fare. It didn’t make sense to have two different policies for two different sets of bus riders in the county, Riemer added.
“If there is an equity issue here, seeking to help disadvantaged members of our community with lower fares, we ought to apply that equally, regardless of where you live,” Riemer said last week.
Rice agreed with Riemer’s proposal of $1.50 each for Ride On and Metrobus fares. He asked Chris Conklin, director of the county’s Department of Transportation, about whether the department was exploring a tiered fare structure that would provide free or lower fares for lower-income riders and require higher fares for those who can better afford it. Conklin said county transportation officials are waiting to see how a similar pilot program in Washington, D.C., is implemented and how effective it is.
Conklin said that due to the administrative costs, county officials would want to partner with the district or other local jurisdictions before establishing a tiered fare structure for riders, based on their income. Whether such a policy would be adopted would probably depend on WMATA, he said.
“We don’t control their fare policy [WMATA], so anything you would want to do, you’re kind of at the whim of what they decide to set as fare policy for the region,” Conklin said. “I’m not saying they do that haphazardly, but we have limited influence.”
Rice said he agreed with Riemer that there should be a more targeted approach to helping people in need. He added that it is at best an uncertainty whether people will fully return to the office and thus need to use mass transit. There also is an increasing interest in other ways for people to reduce their carbon footprint in addition to using mass transit, such as driving electric vehicles and working from home, Rice said.
“I just caution us about how much we’re going to be counting on this bounce back,” Rice said about the future of mass transit ridership.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com