David Grosso is an at-large member of the DC Council.
It's time for the District of Columbia to take over planning and operations for our intra-city buses from WMATA. Let's also add more funding to make them free for all riders.
DC relies on public transportation. Nearly 40 percent of the city's commuters take public transit of some form, and buses are a vital component of that system, with over 40 percent of those riders opting for buses. Recently, WMATA leadership has proposed cutting Metrorail service while increasing fares.
This will only serve to quicken the decline of vital public transportation, as it will surely result in reduced revenues, necessitating further cuts to service and reliability. With higher rail fares for less rail service, residents are going to turn to the bus even more.
DC should operate its own buses
Currently, WMATA operates two kinds of bus service: "regional" and "non-regional." Bus lines which cross borders (and a few others) are regional, meaning that multiple governments share the cost. "Non-regional" lines include many bus routes that criss-cross the city without ever entering our neighboring jurisdictions. DC pays WMATA for all those buses' operating costs, which cost upwards of $20 million per year. All of those routes could be managed directly bythe District Department of Transportation (DDOT) instead of WMATA.
A few routes, though entirely within DC, are classified as "regional" because a lot of commuters from outside DC ride them. DC contributes to the cost of operating them but doesn't pay for in total. DC could operate its own buses on these routes, meaning they could be reduced or eliminated at the WMATA level as well. This greater level of control will allow DC to more easily improve these routes.
DC leaders recognize the importance of public transportation to our residents. City leaders have already shown a willingness to put more money into public transportation, voicing support for a dedicated funding source to help cure WMATA's woes. But a lack of commitment from our regional partners means this will not happen soon. Both Maryland and Virginia have been tepid at best in response to proposals for a 1cent regional sales tax that would bring WMATA's budget more in line with other public transportation systems.
Instead of paying WMATA to operate these routes for our residents, let's do it ourselves. We can task DDOT with running or contracting out the service, as we do with the Circulator. We could even brand them with the Circulator's now-ubiquitous red and black. Let's take those millions of dollars we pay annually to WMATA, invest additional funds, and provide the type of transportation system that residents can rely on, one that is an attractive alternative to Metrorail.
Bus autonomy offers several advantages. We can be more responsive to our residents' transportation needs and nimble in implementing changes. This could mean more buses down major arteries or quicker implementation of dedicated bus lanes. Perhaps even new routes and expanded services to better meet changing demand.
Making buses free would pay off big
Perhaps most importantly, we should seek to eliminate fares for riders on buses to speed boarding, reduce delays, increase ridership, and further reduce reliance on cars and Metrorail.
Making buses free will have many benefits. It will speed buses by reducing boarding times; make it easier for people to get to work and run errands; and potentially provide an added measure of safety for drivers by reducing negative confrontations with passengers.
This year, DC already is paying $18.6 million to WMATA for K-12 students to ride for free on buses and trains. Extending this throughout the city has the potential to increase ridership and reduce traffic by encouraging people to leave their cars at home (or not have one at all).
WMATA typically collects approximately $150 million in bus fares each year across the entire region, and DC's portion of the subsidy for bus operations is approximately $200 million per year. DC would have to make up the lost fare revenue for any routes that it makes free through other sources (such as a dedicated transit tax), though there would be other savings from shorter dwell times at stops, elimination of fare-recovery efforts, and other efficiencies.
One less responsibility would make Metro stronger, too
WMATA, and thus Metrorail, would also benefit from the city's taking over of our buses. WMATA would be free to focus on the central issues that currently plague the transit authority. Not needing to worry about DC's buses would free up resources that could be redirected to Metrorail improvement and, with one less thing to manage, leaders could set about placing their own fiscal house in order.
A more attractive, reliable, and possibly free bus system would entice riders to explore other options for their commute and would relieve some of the strain on Metrorail or fill in the gaps for planned service cuts which may be necessary to repair the rail system. To be clear, the city would not turn a profit under this scheme; we never have from our public transportation (or roads and highway projects for that matter). But that's not the point. What we'd get is something much greater.
There are no single or simple solutions to all of WMATA's woes or our regional transportation challenges. But, there are certainly steps we can take to improve transportation options for our residents, and taking over the bus system is chief among them.