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D.C.’s ‘Free Fares Vs. Good Service’ Debate Isn’t What You Think

The D.C. debate.

Washington D.C.’s controversial proposal to cancel a transitway project and use the money to fund free bus fares set off a hot debate among urbanists about the potential tradeoff between service and mobility justice — until a new announcement revealed that the nation’s capital may not get either anytime soon.

In late April, two members of the D.C. Council grabbed headlines when they proposed scrapping the multimodal, $123-million K Street Transitway project — a long-fought road redesign which would prioritize bus service by featuring two separated bus lanes between 12th Street NW to 21st Street NW, among other multimodal improvements — and re-allocate its funding towards an initiative called Metro for D.C., allowing people to board a bus within District limits for free, no matter the final destination.

“The K Street Transitway model is a first of its kind in D.C.,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a recent press event in support of the former project. “It is not an overstatement to say that it will transform how our city thinks about public transportation.” Meanwhile, moving capital dollars away from the transit over to fare-free buses, the Mayor said, “is not the way to move our city forward.”

The story sparked anger among national advocates like Slate’s David Zipper, who urged policymakers not to “cast aside [the transitway project] in favor of a [fare free] policy of dubious value” — and urged transit decision-makers nationwide to “heed a lesson from D.C.’s experience: tradeoffs between improving transit quality and going fare-free are real, [and] you truly can’t have it both ways.”

Last week, though, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board Chair Paul Smedberg complicated that narrative when he urged Mayor Bowser and the DC Council to delay roll out of fare-free buses for at least a year – leaving the future of both initiatives in question.

Moreover, some locals say that the debate is a poor object lesson for the rest of the country, which they say is not simply a clean “tradeoff” between service and fares, but a complex regional controversy involving tensions unique to the District. Under the surface of the debate are budgetary concerns for both the city and the WMATA, design concerns about the Transitway that some say would undermine its multimodal goals, as well as tensions among the D.C. Mayor’s office, the D.C.Council, WMATA, and many transit advocates, each with varying views on how to move the District forward.

“I’m frustrated with WMATA, but bold ideas sometimes take time,” said Ward 6 Council Member Charles Allen, in a statement last week. “ A one-year delay [to the Metro for DC fare-free initiative] isn’t the end of the world, but I do hold some skepticism.”

The fare-free bus service initiative is actually a carve-out of a much more robust legislative package that provided stipends for DC residents of $100 a month, and was essentially a fare buydown program for WMATA, creating a way for the District to give the agency dollars for operation. Moreover, contrary to the binary debate, that same legislation would increase service as well, “creating new bus routes, reducing time between buses, building more dedicated bus lanes, and other improvements to make buses work better,” according to the initiative’s website.

That proposition won the favor of many sustainable advocates, even if it meant losing the Transitway, which had lost their support as the design became increasingly car-centric. Jeremiah Lowery, advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association said his organization had backed the Transitway for more than 15 years, but a last minute update to the design, which moved the protected bike lane off K and onto L Street, caught advocates by surprise.

“Now is not the time, when we want a complete street, to drop a mode of transportation for residents,” Lowery said. “K Street needs to be a complete street, and it can’t be a complete street without a protected bike lane.”

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, agreed.

“The K Street Transitway project is something we’ve been enthusiastic about for a long time but in the last few years it’s sort of been taken over as kind of a bare engineering project which is really missing some very important components,” Cort said. “We do think we should take a pause on it.”

The path forward

With D.C.’s budget still to be voted on, the future of both K-Street and Metro for D.C. seem to be up in the air.

“I think we're sort of headed into some tough times that has made us kind of really rethink what should be the next focus or investing in better transit,” Cort said, adding that she was pleased to see a large number of bus priority projects in DC’s budget. “Those are moving forward and we're very excited to see the city ramp up planning and implementations for those projects.”

Alex Baca, D.C. policy director for Greater Greater Washington, would also like to see the city lean into buses — especially if the fare free program looks like it won't be funded for now.

“My preference would be for $10 million to build a bus priority project on K Street,” Baca said, who previously said the $123 million alternative was “reaching boondoggle status” on Twitter. “That is what I believe is more than sufficient to create a really premiere bus priority project that will prioritize transit, riders, people on bikes and people on foot.”

Lowery points to a larger issue cities need to address to move forward on building both great service and a transportation system that’s truly accessible to all.

“It’s our scarcity mindset that is the reason why we don't have a transformative transportation system in the United States,” Lowery said. “There are funding mechanisms that we can pursue, to make the buses free, and at the same time, ensure that our bus system has the funding it needs to improve service and reliability.”

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