Less than 48 hours after it was first announced, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen‘s bill that would give all D.C. residents $100 on a SmarTrip card to pay for public transportation every month has the support of nine of his 11 Council colleagues.
The Metro For DC Amendment Act of 2020 would also dedicate roughly $10 million into improving bus services, from expanding service hours to adding bus shelters and SmarTrip kiosks. Priority will be given to areas that have historically been overlooked and where low-income riders heavily depend on public transportation.
“Learning from other cities’ experiences trying to make public transit free, we saw that while price is important for many people, service needs to be better, reliable, and predictable,” according to a website run by Allen’s office. “That is why along with the subsidy, there is a special fund dedicated to better bus service.”
The bill enjoys support from wonks, unions, and poverty relief groups. Proponents of the bill argue that the proposal will spur economic development, make public transit more affordable for more people, particularly those who’ve been priced out of the city, and encourage people to drive less, thereby addressing traffic congestion and air pollution.
They are also making the case that a government subsidy for public transportation should not be means tested. “For a program such as mass transit incentives, I think we want to incentivize everybody,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said in his legislative media briefing on Monday. “I think we also want to be mindful of some level of stigma about bus service that rich people don’t ride the bus—which actually is not true. If we were to exclude from the benefit the very wealthy, that could have a counterproductive effect.”
Nearly every member of the Council supports Metro For DC and intends to co-introduce the bill during today’s legislative meeting. Ward 7’s Vince Gray was unavailable for comment and has yet to weigh in on the proposal, and the Ward 2 seat remains vacant after Jack Evans‘ resignation. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who has historically boosted generous proposals like this one, supports the spirit of the bill but wants to further understand it before she backs it.
“I like bold proposals, but I want to get a better understanding: how much it would cost; how taking the unexpected revenue would impact other top priorities like making housing more affordable and funding schools; and how we can design the program to meet our needs,” she writes in an email to City Paper. “We’ve spent a lot of money on bold transportation programs, like the streetcar, Kids Ride Free and the Circulator, which haven’t had the equity outcomes we wanted and ended up being more expensive than we thought.”
Near-universal support for the bill does not guarantee passage. The bill’s cost estimate could deter lawmakers down the road. Allen’s office estimates it will cost anywhere between $54 million and $151 million, depending on if the estimated 118,000 people actually use the full $100 amount and lawmakers successfully negotiate bulk rates with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Recent history shows us that bills can easily lose support during the legislative process. Ari Schwartz, a local activist, reminds City Paper that it is not impossible for a councilmember to co-introduce a bill only to vote it down later. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, for example, co-sponsored the “fair scheduling” labor bill—a proposal that sought to give hourly workers more predictable work schedules—but voted against it in committee in 2016. He changed his position after meeting with local businesses.
City Paper contributor Tom Sherwood, who’s been covering local politics for decades, says it is not uncommon for a politician in any legislature to sign onto a bill in the hopes of modifying it before a vote. Ward 3’s Mary Cheh co-sponsored the Paid Family Leave Act in 2015 and later tried to alter the financing structure. Her amendment ultimately failed and she did vote in favor of the bill, but nevertheless she tried to change it after initially supporting the measure.
Having seen this dynamic play out in the D.C. Council a number of times, Sherwood once asked former Ward 5 Councilmember William Spaulding why he had signed onto a bill that he had voted against. Sherwood will never forget what Spaulding told him: “Just because I cosponsor a bill doesn’t mean I am for it.”
There’s one more obstacle with Allen’s Metro For DC bill: the mayor. When asked by the press if she supports the measure, Mayor Muriel Bowser effectively said she was more focused on her proposal that explores making transit more accessible and affordable. Her bill would study means-tested transit subsidies.