A battle is brewing in D.C. over how to pay for free Metrobus service in the nation’s capital. This comes after a proposal last week by Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, which calls for “pausing” the K Street Transitway project in downtown D.C. and using that money to cover bus fares.
“Let me be clear, this will kill the project,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at a news conference Monday, during which she took issue with Allen’s proposal.
The K Street Transitway, which has been in the works since before the pandemic, includes adding dedicated bus lanes and bus platforms that are separated from traffic. Bowser said having the dedicated bus lanes will improve Metrobus service not only downtown, but citywide.
“Even people who love buses don’t love buses when they are stuck in traffic and are not reliable,” Bowser said. “Even if they’re free.”
The mayor said not moving forward with project would be a “downtown killer.”
In attendance at the news conference was Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto.
“Many residents rely on our buses, and I think Metrobuses as an idea, to make them free, is a very interesting and important proposal to think about, but we cannot do so at the expense of a really important project for our downtown,” Pinto said.
Pinto said the plan would allow for 50 buses to move through the area in an hour; currently, the current count is about 37 buses per hour.
In proposing the change in spending last week, Allen also claimed the transitway project is not “forward thinking,” describing it as something that was designed pre-pandemic “that does not fit with the current and future needs of downtown, which has changed dramatically since the advent of widespread remote work.
Speaking to the media before the news conference, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson made it clear he sides with delaying the downtown project.
The chairman said the goal coming out of the pandemic should be bringing about changes by next year and claims the several-year project “misses the mark.”
“The plan needs some refreshing and stores don’t need to have the pavement in front of their door torn up for two years, not for now,” Mendelson said.
Bowser claims with many workers still working remotely, a big transit project, such as this, should happen right now.
“It does not stand to reason that you want a major project after everybody is back in their offices, and we have even more people on the road,” Bowser said.
During the news conference, several cyclists protested the removal of bike lanes from the K street project. When questioned about the lanes, the mayor wouldn’t say why the lanes were taken out, but D.C. Department of Transportation Everett Lott said if the project is saved, the design would include modifying L street to have room for two-way bike traffic from 10th Street to 21st Street.
Both Bowser and Pinto also took aim at Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau’s proposal to add a $2 surcharge for ride-share rides going into and out of downtown during certain parts of the day.
“We can’t just say casually that we’re going to add a few dollars to this person or that person, when we’re trying to get them to come back to work in the downtown,” Bowser said.
“We do not know if this fee will actually reduce any congestion, but we do know that this fee will penalize people for living, or working, or spending time in downtown at a time when we’re trying to encourage both of those things,” Pinto said.
Mendelson said he won’t make a decision until he hears more about the ride-share surcharge plan at Wednesday’s D.C. Council meeting.