Kelly Straub, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
The last two years of SafeTrack maintenance plus decades of fiscal mismanagement have placed a huge strain on the bottom line at the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Due to overlapping jurisdictions between D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, WMATA funding is a budgetary hot potato, as each local government attempts to pass off as much of the burden as possible. In response to persistent shortfalls and skyrocketing maintenance costs, one of WMATA’s has few options is to increase fares for riders. Although there are no new price hikes scheduled for 2018, Metro Chairman Paul Wiedefeld has warned that higher fares will be necessary in the future if the organization is unable to secure other streams of revenue.
Increased fares would be bad news for the people of D.C. It is already more expensive to take public transportation than it is to drive in many cases. For example, a ride from the Franconia Springfield stop to L’Enfant Plaza Station cost $5.35 each way during peak hours — over $10 for a round trip. For a daily commuter, this equals transportation costs of well over $200 dollars per month, or over $2,500 per year. This figure may still be lower than the cost of parking downtown, but as soon as you add another passenger to the car, it becomes cheaper to park in a $15-dollar garage than to pay the cost of two people’s metro fares.
Unfortunately, this burden falls disproportionately on low-income workers, the very people who most heavily rely on public transportation. A worker making the D.C. minimum wage of $15 an hour, working an 8-hour day, commuting from a suburb like Springfield would spend nearly 10% of his or her pre-tax income on transportation. As of January 2016, most businesses in D.C. are required to offer employees a pre-tax deduction for public transportation of $130 a month. While employees do not have to pay taxes on this money, it does not actually represent additional revenue. If low-income workers pay little in income taxes, this program may serve no net benefit, assuming they have access to it in the first place. While many larger companies and the federal government offer public transportation benefits, these are often not available for non-salaried employees.
This burden of cost on the poor is exacerbated by a lack of available subsidizedtransportation options. Currently, WMATA allows persons with disabilities and senior citizens to pay half the peak fare price on Metro rides and $1.00 for buses. The D.C. government also has a deal that provides school children who use public transportation with unlimited monthly passes for $30, but this is only available to students enrolled in D.C. schools. Neither WMATA nor regional governments offer subsidized transportation for low-income workers.
The best case scenario would be for the governments of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia to provide enough funding to ensure WMATA’s prices don’t increase and commuters stay safe. This means giving WMATA the money it has been asking for: $3.1 billion for their projected FY18 budget. However, for most state legislators in Richmond and Annapolis, WMATA has little impact on their constituencies. The Virginia and Maryland state governments are not eager to provide money towards a regional transportation issue, and federal money supplementing public transportation is likely to decrease under President Trump. Despite his publicized focus on infrastructure, his actual proposed budget includes significant cuts to Department of Transportation programs that provide WMATA $150 million dollars a year in grants. This means that future fare increases appear inevitable, and lower-income Washingtonians will likely continue to see a bigger portion of their paychecks go toward getting to work.
In the short term, there is little indication that WMATA’s budgeting shortfall will be fixed. However, there is room for state and local government to protect the most vulnerable riders from future price hikes and lessen their current burden. The easiest thing to do would be for WMATA to expand the current discounted fare system beyond the elderly and those with disabilities to include individuals making below a certain wage threshold. There is already a process for disabled individuals to apply for these benefits, so expanding it to low-income workers would require relatively few changes to the system overall. Additionally, the D.C. and local governments could work with WMATA to expand access to the $30 monthly fare cards beyond D.C. school children to low-income people throughout the region. While these programs would mean a decrease in WMATA funds from ticket sales, they would create relatively few additional costs for the transportation system. WMATA may even see ridership increase if more people are able to afford to commute via Metro. Additionally, funding from non-profit organizations and local governments could help fund these programs as part of their anti-poverty initiatives and provide additional funding for a cash-strapped WMATA.