Public transportation

Has D.C. Found the Right Way To Do 'Free' Public Transit?

Councilmember Charles Allen has proposed giving every D.C. resident a $100 monthly subsidy for bus and train rides.


The trains and buses might not be on time, but the movement for free public transit keeps on rolling.

On Sunday, Washington D.C. City Councilmember Charles Allen announced his intention to introduce new legislation that would provide every District resident, regardless of income, with a $100 monthly stipend they could spend on public buses and trains.

Residents would have to sign up each year for the $100 benefit. Any money they don't use in a given month would be recycled back into the pool of available funds. Allen's proposal would also create a new fund to improve bus service in D.C.'s lower-income neighborhoods.

The program would cost between $50 million and $150 million a year. The final figure would be dependent on what kind of bulk discount on fares the city might be able to negotiate with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), says Allen. He says that the program will be funded by excess tax revenue the city expects to collect, and therefore will not necessitate tax increases or service cuts.

Allen's proposal is different from a lot of other free transit proposals that have been proposed or passed in other U.S. cities. Those, like the program implemented in Kansas City, Missouri, in January, simply make riding public transit fully free.

The D.C. proposal, which the Washington Post reports has the backing of seven of 13 city councilmembers, would instead function more like a universal transit voucher. That's a major improvement over other programs.

For starters, it wouldn't blow a hole in WMATA's budget. Other free transit proposals that just abolish fares leave transit agencies themselves scrambling to make up the money they would have gotten from riders.

So long as these agencies are covering some of their operating costs, they should keep doing so, Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy expert with the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website), said back in December.

"Whether it's 20 percent of the recovery rate or 40 percent of the recovery rate, it's a lot better than zero percent of the recovery rate," he said. "From a fiscal perspective, you should do it just because you need the funding."

By giving a subsidy to the rider, and not WMATA, Allen's bill also maintains the agency's incentive to retain and grow ridership.

"By providing a subsidy to residents, there's a market-based incentive for WMATA to earn riders. If service isn't reliable, safe, and predictable, people with options won't change their transit habits," reads a summary of Allen's proposal tweeted out by NBC reporter Adam Tuss. In contrast, if a transit agency's revenue is totally disconnected from ridership, riders become just another cost to bear.

There are still a number of problems with Allen's transit voucher idea. For starters, it's a universal benefit, meaning that even the wealthiest D.C. residents could take advantage of it. This is deliberately done to encourage ridership across all income groups. "We don't want to 'other' our public transit. It's for everyone and a shared public good," reads a summary of the legislation.

I don't quite understand how not giving a transit voucher to someone making $200,000 a year will make that person "other" public transit more than they already do, in the same way that I don't imagine giving only low-income people food stamps encourages the othering of grocery stores.

As Allen already acknowledges, wealthier commuters' decision to take transit has less to do with the price of a trip and more to do with the level of service being offered. Rather than give the least price-sensitive commuters a voucher, why not just take that money and spend it on more service improvements?

According to a 2019 survey from TransitCenter, riders—including low-income riders—prioritize service improvements over fare cuts.

The argument that the program is already paid for by excess tax revenue might be technically true but is still misleading. If the D.C. government is collecting more money than it needs for current levels of spending, the best thing to would be to undo recent tax hikes. We can then have a discussion about whether taxes should be raised to pay for additional benefits.

Allen's proposal has not been officially introduced, and will surely change as it works its way through the city council. It's better in design than many other free transit policies being proposed in other cities. It would nevertheless see a lot of tax dollars being spent on wealthy riders who don't need a subsidy to get to work.