Almost two years ago, DC Councilmember Charles Allen announced a proposal to offer DC residents a $100 monthly stipend for public transit. On Wednesday, two Council committees held the first joint hearing on the Metro for D.C. Amendment Act.
The bill would ensure that residents with registered Smartrip cards have their Smartrip balance topped up to $100 each month. The bill would also create a $10 million "Transit Equity Fund" to help expand bus service in underserved areas identified by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) as “transit priority need areas." The fund would pay for improvements in those areas, including creating dedicated bus lanes and shelters and/or adding service along existing routes.
The stipend would be offered to residents below the poverty level first, then roll up to higher income levels. DC residents who already receive transit benefits via employment and other means would not be eligible.
Although testimony during the hearing was mostly in favor of the bill, there were a variety of suggestions for how implementation — and overall transit service — could be improved.
Michael Havlin of Friends of the DC Streetcar recommended that some of the funds go towards implementing the originally-proposed 37-mile streetcar network which would be compatible with the bill's goals to improve connectivity between high-priority transit areas of the city and destinations further downtown.
Abel Amene shared that the residency requirement for the bill could create an unjust barrier for unhoused residents, and ANC Commissioner Keya Chatterjee pointed out that the enrollment process may render undocumented residents ineligible. Jen Jenkins of the Legal Aid Society DC also noted that residents in the city's most high-needs areas also have less access to banks and internet that could be needed to register a Smartrip card and enroll in the program.
Councilmember Allen cited a provision in the bill to provide grants for nonprofit partners to enroll unhoused residents, although he welcomed feedback about strengthening or amending this to ensure broader access.
DDOT Deputy Director Sharon Kershbaum expressed support for the bill's goals, but cited concerns around implementation spanning from eligibility verification and customer service to technological design and administrative costs. As an example of a less burdensome way to increase transit equity, Kershbaum cited Boston recently making fares free on three high-demand routes.
Kershbaum also stated that the scope of the Transit Equity Fund be broadened to include regional routes rather than be restricted to routes that only run in DC. "The purpose of the fund should be to improve bus service where it benefits as many riders in historically underserved communities as possible."
Both Councilmember Allen and Council Chair Phil Mendelson expressed confusion and frustration about the agency's position, which in part seemed to tout the work DDOT is already doing to increase ridership.
"The issue here is, what are we doing to increase bus frequency or bus headways or bus routes? And I just feel like there are obstacles being thrown up with regard to this bill, but I don't see another strategy," Mendelson explained.
With this being the first hearing on the bill, UrbanTurf will continue to monitor its progress.
This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/dc-council-transportation-committee-holds-first-hearing-on-100-monthly-metr/19309.
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