Free DC Circulator rides may be on the chopping block

Free rides on the DC Circulator could be cut after a D.C. Council committee complained about a lack of proof that the first few months of free rides have helped to improve traffic.

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh also challenged the District Department of Transportation’s revisions to ridership numbers that changed what was initially reported as a slight increase in February.

“With reported increases in ridership suddenly jumping 6% from the original reports, conveniently, we think, coinciding with the mayor’s ‘keep the Circulator free’ campaign,” Cheh said Thursday.

DDOT told the committee following a recent hearing that ridership counts are now estimates as tracked by drivers when riders board. 

“And to the extent that there’s been any increase in ridership, there’s been no data … to show whether the additional riders — however many there are — are just switching from one transit option, such as Metro or other bus lines, to another, thus having no effect on getting people out of their cars,” Cheh said.

Cheh chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, which removed $3.1 million proposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser from the budget proposal it sent to the full council Thursday.

Cheh also expressed concerns that the free DC Circulator rides disproportionately benefit people who live outside the city rather than purely transit costs for D.C. residents.

“Indeed, it is unclear to the committee that anything more than a superficial analysis was conducted before this decision was reached. The committee feels that a decision of this magnitude merits a larger discussion, including how it fits in with the District’s overall public transit goals, which does not appear to have taken place,” the committee’s budget report said.

Bowser announced the free rides this winter as part of what was initially a one-month promotion to make it easier to get around the city.

The full D.C. Council is due to vote on the budget package May 14.

Council member Brandon Todd wants to keep the $3.1 million in the budget, rather than restoring the Circulator’s $1 fares. “I believe the intent is pure, and that we must do more to accommodate those who need reliable public transportation options but find the economics challenging,” Todd said.

Council member Jack Evans noted he has heard from constituents on both sides of the free rides issue. Council members Charles Allen and Kenyan McDuffie expressed clear support for shifting the $3.1 million to other needs.

“I think there’s some work that can be done, including making sure that it touches more of our residents who have transportation challenges,” McDuffie said.

The Circulator currently has six routes, while Metrobus has dozens. A seventh Circulator route in Ward 7 is in the planning process.

City leaders have yet to find a location for a new bus garage that would be needed to provide additional expanded Circulator service and keep up with maintenance.

McDuffie is also pushing for new bus service of some kind to the Fort Lincoln area, where new homes and stores such as Costco have opened near New York Avenue Northeast without regular transit service to connect to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station just down the road.

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