With the new fare, the county is ending a long-standing tradition of following Metro’s fare policy — Metrobus riders pay $2 to ride — while falling more in line with what other transit systems in the region charge, such as Prince George’s County TheBus and the D.C. Circulator.
The county council debated for months whether to keep public buses free or to adopt a lower fare, citing a desire to make the system more affordable and accessible to residents. The panel voted in favor of County Executive Marc Elrich’s (D) proposal to drop the fare to $1, an option his administration said was “cost-effective” and would provide financial help to riders.
“$1 is better than $2 and it will provide relief to those who are dependent on our buses,” said council vice president Evan Glass (D-At Large), a proponent of fare-free service. “We are making progress and we’re going down the right path towards true transit equity.”
Since the pandemic began, several bus systems in the region have examined fares to address income inequalities and racial disparities as they try to lure riders back.
Alexandria’s DASH bus system went fare-free last fall. Prince George’s riders saw bus fares drop from $1.25 to $1 a year ago. Fairfax and Arlington counties are considering programs to subsidize fares of low-income riders.
In Montgomery, proponents of a fare-free system and lower fares cited a transportation equity study that found the median household income of Ride On passengers is $35,000 — well below the county average of $108,820. Two-thirds of Ride On passengers don’t own a car, according to the report.
Under the new structure, express routes that charged $4.25 before the pandemic will also have fares reduced to $1, while the cost of a monthly pass will drop from $45 to $22.50.
Chris Conklin, director of the county transportation department, said the reinstatement of a lower fare ensures the transit service has an important revenue source and “would benefit the most people.”
“With this decision, Montgomery County residents will benefit from stable funding for transit and the burden of transportation costs is cut in half for all of our customers,” he said. “The dollar fare leaves the door open for coordinating a needs-based bus fare program for the whole region.”
The council had expressed support for keeping the system fare-free earlier this month, but as it moved to approve the budget, the panel was unable to come up with the nearly $10 million it would need to keep Ride On free in the fiscal year that starts July 1. Elrich’s proposed budget included the $1 fare.
Montgomery County was one of the few suburban transit systems that had maintained free bus service more than two years into the pandemic. In early 2020, bus systems in the Washington region suspended fare collection for months to keep passengers distanced from bus drivers because of coronavirus risks, but most have resumed fares.
Glass said the fare policy aims to support residents who depend on the service, many of whom continued to work at essential jobs during the pandemic. He said the transit agency — which has the region’s second-largest bus ridership after Metrobus — is also hoping to attract more riders amid a rise in telework.
“If we want to support public transportation, we need to reduce the barriers to ridership, and lower or free fares is the best way to do that,” Glass said.