In February 2016, WMATA approved its University Ride Pass program, which allows college students to take unlimited rides on Metrorail and Metrobus for $1 a day at participating schools. But colleges aren’t lining up for the deal the way you might expect.
The pass is only valid during the academic year, and students pay in the form of a mandatory fee as part of their tuition and housing package at the beginning of the semester. This means that federal and institutional financial aid could cover the cost of the pass. At American University, the first and so far only university to participate in the program, the “sticker price” amounts to $130 a student, per semester.
Sounds like a steal, right? As a student at the George Washington University and an ANC commissioner representing other GW students, I thought the program was a great idea. My ANC unanimously passed a resolution in support of the program in November of 2015, and I testified at a Metro budget hearing as well. After the WMATA Board formally approved the program, popular among students, I thought it would quickly be adopted across the District — until institutional hurdles got in the way.
Students support the program
The first step that Metro wanted universities to take was to hold a student-wide vote to determine the level of interest in U-Pass. Initial referendums showed support of 85% and 74% at American and GW, respectively. In July, the Washington Post reported that Howard was poised to sign onto the program for the fall 2016 semester — though roll-out of the program was subsequently pushed back to spring 2017. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said at a Foggy Bottom Association meeting I attended back in June that Metro was working with the University of Maryland to finalize participation.
The lone exception to the trend of support was at Catholic University, where the student government president vetoed a resolution in support of the program after expressing concerns about cost and security liability, while still maintaining support for the goals of the U-Pass.
Reluctance from university administrators
Before and after the vote at GW in April, I met with GW stakeholders to take their pulse on the program. The consensus was that GW opposed the U-Pass as it was currently structured, on the grounds that it does not provide students with unlimited free Circulator rides, that it excludes the MetroAccess paratransit program, that Metro designed the program for its own financial gain, and that the program would disadvantage low-income students who rarely venture off-campus and could not afford to pay the $250 or so annual fee to participate in this program.
Some of these concerns have more merit than others. While it’d be great for the Circulator to be included in U-Pass, it is not strictly-speaking a Metro service and currently none of Metro’s existing SelectPass options include it. Similarly, U-Pass doesn’t include the Fairfax Connector, Ride On, or any of the other, locally-run bus systems in the region — all of which would need to give their assent to inclusion in the program, presumably in concert with revisions to the current revenue-sharing arrangement among the agencies. Of course, Circulator rides only cost $1 anyways.
U-Pass’ treatment of MetroAccess is more problematic. WMATA’s interest in not providing unlimited use access to eligible ADA paratransit users is obvious: It loses a significant amount of money on the existing service and bundling it into U-Pass would be an administrative nightmare.
But even if it is reasonable not to provide such services under U-Pass, it is also reasonable to allow MetroAccess users to participate in the program for their Metrobus and Metrorail travel needs. As I understand it, the current agreement governing the U-Pass program would foreclose upon this possibility — probably because WMATA sought to protect disabled students from being charged for a service they were not likely to use. This is valid, but there should still be some sort of opt-in eligibility for student MetroAccess users.
Still, one student government leader I talked to opposed this program because of a concern that U-Pass not including MetroAccess amounted to an ADA violation. Despite this, I am only aware of one unlimited ride program offered by any US transit agency that includes ADA paratransit services: the U-Pass at the University of Washington, Tacoma, which allows unlimited rides on the Pierce County Transit system.
The chief concern seems to be that the program financially advantages WMATA, supposedly evidenced by the fact that they asked for all the money to be paid up front. Immediately after the program’s approval, WMATA reached out to colleges asking them to adopt U-Pass for the coming school year, which some stakeholders saw as a desire on WMATA’s part to plug their budget shortfall by profiting off of U-Pass. But closer examination casts doubt on that claim.
WMATA would receive a total of $2.5 million per year if all of GW’s approximately 10,000 undergraduate students paid about $250 for the program (the program could also apply to graduate students as well, depending on how a university negotiates the contract). That’s a drop in the bucket for the nation’s second-largest subway system; the program was designed to be revenue-neutral, with certain assumptions made about usage to conjure up the per-student figure in the absence of historical usage data.
And as for the up-front payment, WMATA asks the same of individual users: you pay for your pass before you begin using the time-defined unlimited modal service.
The program could disadvantage low-income students, but schools can step in
The most valid concern, which has also been expressed by some students, is that the program will disadvantage low-income students who barely use the Metro system. This is why many stakeholders supported an opt-in system. But it’s clear from WMATA’s perspective that a revenue-neutral opt-in system could not be offered at a reasonable price point; students who already spend a lot of money on Metro would participate, while others would not.
Still, as mentioned earlier, financial aid can cover some of the added cost and universities could establish a fund to further subsidize the cost of the program for students experiencing financial hardship, as has been done with other programs to address specific financial needs.
Transportation costs represent a major out-of-pocket burden to students’ ability to fully take advantage of academic, work, and life experience opportunities in the DC area. It’s worth relieving that burden.
The future of the program is in universities’ hands
Ultimately, GW (and probably other universities) will wait for the results of AU’s pilot study to determine the program's feasibility. Having been on AU’s campus the day passes were handed out, and from talking with students there about the passes on an ongoing basis, I can say that the program has generated a lot of excitement and students are pleased so far.
The longer other universities such as GW and CUA hold out, the more their students will be deprived of a similarly world-expanding experience.