CSG in the News: “Metro Might Charge Bus Riders More For Paying In Cash. How Will It Affect Low-Income Riders?”

By Margaret Barthel | WAMU | February 25, 2020

Metro will hold three public meetings this week to solicit feedback on its proposed 2021 budget. The agency is suggesting a number of significant service changes, including fare changes, cuts to bus routes, free transfers between bus and rail and the return of late-night rail service.

In one proposal, Metro is suggesting a 25-cent surcharge — on top of the regular fare — for people paying cash to board the bus, or using cash to add value to their SmarTrip cards on the bus.

That’s been the subject of some concern from advocates worried about the way the proposal could affect low-income riders, especially those who are unbanked or under-banked. More than half of Metrobus riders make less than $30,000 per year, and a significant majority are people of color.

Speeding Buses Up

Metro wants to make bus trips more efficient, which could make the bus a more appealing transit option — one of the goals of the Bus Transformation Project, a vision for the region’s buses that the Metro Board endorsed last month.

But last year, a report found that buses on some of the system’s busiest routes arrive on schedule just 60% of the time and move less than 10 miles per hour, on average. Bus ridership has declined by 12% in the past 5 years, and the agency hopes to recoup its losses.

One way to do that is to minimize the “dwell time” a bus spends at a stop, waiting for passengers to board and pay for their ride. According to Metro research, payment takes 2-4 seconds with a SmarTrip card, but as long as 20 seconds for people paying in cash or loading a SmarTrip card with cash. About 96% of Metro passengers use SmarTrip cards, with 4% paying in cash on the bus.

A 25-cent surcharge on paying in cash would penalize those riders and, Metro hopes, would incentivize them switching over to SmarTrip cards instead.

“You could position it as a $2.25 bus fare with a 25-cent discount for using SmarTrip,” said Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel.

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld pointed out at a D.C. Council oversight hearing that a SmarTrip card can help riders unlock other savings, too, in the form of passes.

One such discount is also included in Metro’s proposed budget: a decrease in the price of a 7-day bus pass from $15 to $12. But that still requires riders to come up with $12 upfront, a fact Wiedefeld acknowledged.

“Now we’ve got to figure out how we get that done — how do we come up with that $12,” he said.

He suggested that Metro might work with the District to spread the word, perhaps through “book mobile-type things.” Another option Wiedefeld mentioned: a program modeled after Kids Ride Free, where the District could subsidize transit passes for low-income residents.

George Jones, who leads the nonprofit Bread for the City, told WAMU that the low-income residents his organization serves would be hard-pressed to switch to paying upfront for Metro passes.

“You’re talking about people who predominantly use buses, who probably aren’t just readily paying for transportation in advance, in long-term blocks, like those of us who have a Metro card we reload every month,” he said.

‘This Is Not The Way’ 

While some advocates agree that speeding up buses is an important priority, they also raise concerns about how the proposed cash surcharge could affect low-income riders.

“We all agree we need to speed up the boarding process, but this is not the way,” said Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a transit advocacy group.

“Some people don’t have easy access to load a SmarTrip card other than on the bus,” said Katherine Kortum, a transit policy expert and member of the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council. “Not everybody has access to the credit cards and the online access needed in order to top up a card online.”

About 8% of D.C. households are unbanked, and 21.2% are underbanked, according to a 2017 analysis from the FDIC.

“We’re talking about folks who are, at any moment, struggling just to figure out how to get from one place to another,” said Jones. He noted that Bread for the City spent around $50,000 last year in transportation assistance.

Kortum also notes that many bus riders don’t have close by Metro stations where they might add money to a SmarTrip card with cash. In addition to its own Commuter Stores, Metro has retail partnerships with some CVS and Giant locations to provide riders with additional places to add cash value to a SmarTrip. Just three of those places are east of the river.

Metro officials told the D.C. Council that there are about 500 retailers across the region where riders can buy or reload SmarTrip cards, predominantly CVS locations.

Cort told WAMU she hopes Metro will ultimately go cashless — but that that would be paired with deeply discounted or free fare passes for low-income residents, as well as many more options for fare loading.

View the full story on WAMU here.