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D.C. Metro to launch half

Mar 11, 2023Mar 11, 2023

Metro announced a June 20 launch date Monday for its half-price fare program for lower-income riders, releasing details about eligibility and enrollment for the price cut.

Called Metro Lift, the program is the first of its kind for the 56-year-old agency, aiming to make transit costs more equitable across a region in which many federal and office workers have expenses subsidized by their workplaces. The agency is also cutting fares in hopes of boosting ridership, hurt by increased telework during the pandemic.

Metro estimates that nearly 377,000 people in the Washington region qualify for the program under federal income standards and program requirements, which exclude those who use other Metro discount programs. Metro already provides seniors and disabled riders with half-price fares, while all D.C. schoolchildren receive free, unlimited transit use through the Kids Ride Free program.

Transit agencies across the country are increasingly cutting or waiving fares in recent years, driven by momentum from nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd that highlighted societal inequalities. The push also comes after buses and trains played a pivotal role transporting essential workers to jobs during the height of the pandemic.

"The savings from this program will give our customers opportunities to access jobs with higher wages, travel to medical appointments, and access more of the region," Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said in a statement.

Metro estimates that 17 of the nation's 50 largest transit agencies have adopted a low-income assistance program. About half of Metrobus riders and 15 percent of Metrorail riders will be eligible, according to agency estimates. The fare cut is projected to cost Metro about $4 million annually in forfeited revenue, transit leaders said.

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Groups that advocate for homeless residents or people released from prison said the discount is a welcome break in a region where the consumer price index was up 3.7 percent in March compared with a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The index measures changes in the prices of housing, transportation, food and other living expenses.

Paula Thompson, executive director of Voices for a Second Chance, a D.C.-based group that helps those who were formerly incarcerated, said the area's high rents are the biggest obstacle to stability for low-income residents.

"Although this may seem as if it is a small feat, it really isn't for individuals who have low to no income," she said. "Any time that low-income or no-income individuals can save money as they’re trying to navigate their circumstances for the better is always a benefit."

Metro Lift, which Metro's board approved in April as part of the agency's 2024 fiscal year budget, takes effect just before the start of Metro's new fiscal year. Transit leaders are rolling out a public awareness campaign to explain eligibility requirements and steps on how to enroll.

Metro Lift is eligible to adults who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Transit officials said as many as 30 percent of residents in the region who use SNAP benefits ride Metro.

When enrolled, the discount will be applied to riders’ SmarTrip accounts and cards and will last one year with the option to re-enroll each year.

To apply, customers will need to provide Metro with contact information, a SmarTrip card number for themselves or household members, a photo of their federal, state or District-issued ID card and a photo of their Electronic Benefit Transfer card, Metro said.

Riders can apply online on Metro's website starting June 20 or in person on weekdays starting June 26 at three locations: the Metro Center station, Metro's headquarters in Southeast D.C. or Metro's offices in New Carrollton. The sites will be open between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 6 p.m. on Friday. Interpreters will be available, Metro said.

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Riders who sign up online will be able to use their discount within 48 hours, Metro said. The discount will be active immediately for people who sign up in person.

Transit leaders said they plan to use social media, digital signs, paid advertisements and the agency's website to inform riders of the program, while transit staffers will visit social service agencies, community events and job fairs in the coming weeks. Social service agencies are also helping to inform clients. A presentation on the program will be given Thursday to the Metro Board.

The program's launch comes weeks after a measure died that would have provided free Metrobus rides in the District, following a lack of support from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the Metro board. In December, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to pay for Metrobus service, which would have made D.C. the largest city in the nation to offer free transit.

The measure passed without Bowser's support, but she did not include the program in the city's budget for the next fiscal year. The council then considered inserting the program into the budget in place of a project that would add downtown bus lanes on K Street NW.

Metro Board members interjected last month, telling D.C. leaders they didn't want to see funding cut to the downtown project. Supporters of the free bus program said they plan to seek regional support for the program to revive it.

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"Free transit would benefit everyone," Thompson said. "But so would any kind of measure that's going to help folks save money."

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