The Prince George’s County local bus network, TheBus, is dwarfed in size and service by the region’s other jurisdiction-run local bus networks. It’s the only network to provide no weekend or evening service, and its weekday ridership is only 16% of Montgomery County’s Ride On network even though the two counties have similar sizes and populations.
How much of this disparity is due to inferior funding in Prince George’s County?
This is how Maryland funds transit
Metro asks for funding from each of the eight local jurisdictions that are members of the WMATA compact — DC, Prince George’s, Montgomery, Fairfax, and Arlington counties, and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Falls Church. For the past 15-20 years, the state of Maryland has fulfilled Prince George’s and Montgomery counties’ financial contributions to Metro in exchange for appointing Maryland’s voting members of the WMATA Board.
These subsidies — $185 million for Prince George’s County and $144 million for Montgomery County in the fiscal 2016 WMATA budget — make up the majority of the state’s funding for public transportation in the two counties. The larger contribution for Prince George’s County is largely due to the high cost of MetroAccess paratransit service in the county. Although the county has only about 20% of the region’s population, it is responsible for 40% of the cost of MetroAccess service.
In addition to funding Metro service in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, Maryland contributes some of the funds for the counties’ local bus networks. Based on data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database from 2016, these contributions raise the total state transit subsidy for Prince George’s County to $197 million ($216 per resident) and for Montgomery County to $175 million ($168 per resident) annually.
Rather than comparing the state’s whole budget for transit in each county, which includes shares of regional costs such as Metrorail and regional bus routes that cross jurisdictional lines, it is more useful to compare the amounts that Maryland spends on local bus service in each county.
I calculated the state subsidy for all local bus service as the sum of each county’s bill for Metrobus non-regional routes in 2016 and the state’s contributions to TheBus and Ride On service in 2016 from the National Transportation Database. When state subsidies are calculated in this way, they turn out to be very similar on a per-capita basis.
State subsidies for Ride On are much higher than for TheBus largely because Ride On is a much larger system. This is balanced out by the fact that Metro operates many more non-regional bus routes in Prince George’s County. The state subsidy for all local bus service in Prince George’s is $34 million ($37/resident) annually and for local bus service in Montgomery is $40 million ($38/resident) annually.
Prince George’s spends significantly less on transit
The state of Maryland spends nearly the same amount per capita on local bus service in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and Prince George’s receives more state funding for all forms of transit combined. However, Prince George’s County spends significantly less on public transportation.
While WMATA service is entirely paid for by the state, the localities also contribute funding to Ride On and TheBus, giving them an opportunity to fund additional local bus service beyond what the state chooses to provide.
Prince George’s County subsidizes TheBus at $15 million ($16/resident) annually, while Montgomery County subsidizes Ride On at about four times the rate: $59 million ($57/resident) annually. Prince George’s also subsidizes the Regional Transit Agency of Central Maryland at $250,000 annually to provide service in the northern portion of the county, mostly in Laurel.
Although Ride On receives roughly four times the local funding than TheBus, the total local and state subsidies for local buses in the two counties are more equitable because the state subsidizes the two systems and pays for non-regional Metrobus service.
Still, with total subsidies for local buses of $48 million ($53/resident) annually in Prince George’s County and $99 million ($95/resident) annually in Montgomery County, there is roughly twice as much money for local bus service in Montgomery as in Prince George’s County.
Ride On is able to provide much more service than TheBus both because of this disparity and because it receives a much larger share of the total budget for local bus service.
Transit funding in Prince George’s is low compared to the size of its budget
Why does Montgomery County subsidize local bus service at nearly four times the rate that Prince George’s County does? The easy answer is that Prince George’s County is poorer. Although both counties have some of the highest tax rates in Maryland, Montgomery County is significantly richer and thus has a much larger county budget.
That being said, while Montgomery County is richer than Prince George’s County, it isn’t four times richer. Montgomery County’s annual budget is $6.1 billion, while Prince George’s County, with 87% of the population, has a budget of 3.3 billion, or only 54% of the Montgomery County budget.
In both counties’ cases, K-12 education is by far the largest item in the budget. The county school boards receive 45% of the Montgomery County and 60% of the Prince George’s County budgets. This leaves a non-schools budget at $3.4 billion in Montgomery County and $1.3 billion in Prince George’s County.
The Prince George’s non-schools budget is 38% of the Montgomery non-schools budget, but the difference in local transit funding is much larger. Ride On’s local subsidy of $59 million is 1.7% of the Montgomery County non-schools budget, while TheBus’s local subsidy of $15 million is 1.1% of the Prince George’s County non-schools budget. In other words, Prince George’s spends only two-thirds as much of its non-schools budget on public transportation as Montgomery does.
To spend as large a fraction of its non-schools budget on public transportation as Montgomery County, Prince George’s County would need to raise its subsidy for TheBus to $23 million. This bump in TheBus’s funding would raise its total local and state subsidy to $34 million from its current value of $26 million, an increase of about 30%.
While this would not eliminate the disparity between the two counties in per-capita funding for local bus service, it would be a not-insignificant boost to TheBus’s budget. This could help fund some of the changes necessary to increase ridership.