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Free D.C. Circulator service scrapped in initial budget vote but eastward expansion preserved

District lawmakers shoot down Mayor Bowser’s proposal for permanent no-fare rides on the red buses

A D.C. Circulator bus on the Georgetown route
Shutterstock

Residents and visitors are poised to have under five remaining months of free rides on the D.C. Circulator after the D.C. Council preliminarily approved the District’s fiscal year 2020 budget Tuesday. The budget that legislators advanced took out $3.1 million in funding for complimentary Circulator service, meaning $1 fares will return beginning October 1, 2019.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration launched free service on the red buses last February and pushed for permanent free service in the budget. But the Council ultimately voted to put the kibosh on the initiative based on the recommendations of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh’s transportation committee. In a legislative report, the five-member committee said it had “numerous concerns” with the proposal, including the lack of a concrete analysis from the Bowser administration about the impacts of free Circulator service and whom it benefits.

“The Committee has heard anecdotal evidence that some riders are simply using Circulator in lieu of a Metro Bus they otherwise would have ridden,” the report reads. “This behavior simply trades one mode of public transit for another and has little net benefit for overall transit use in the District, and could actively harm these other modes of transit, where decreased ridership means they are unable to meet revenue benchmarks needed to maintain current levels of operation.” The report also expressed skepticism about data the Bowser administration had released showing apparent increases in Circulator ridership since 2018.

Tables of 2018 and 2019 Circulator ridership figures provided to the D.C. Council
D.C. Council

The Council’s committee of the whole, which is headed by Phil Mendelson, the legislature’s chairman, and has final say over the version of the budget the full Council votes on, agreed with the transportation committee about the Circulator and removed the mayor’s proposal. The second required vote on D.C.’s $15.5 billion budget for next fiscal year is set for May 28.

Meanwhile, Circulator service is expected to expand into Ward 7, the municipal area located primarily east of the Anacostia River on either side of East Capitol Street, as Bowser sought. The budget approved Tuesday includes $13 million in funding to add a seventh Circulator line that, according to city transportation officials, would likely start at Eastern Market, run through Penn Branch, and end in Skyland, near Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE.

Current D.C. Circulator service
D.C. Circulator

The budget also incorporates about $10 million in funding over the next six fiscal years to maintain Capital Bikeshare bikes and grow the service’s network by 18 stations and roughly 300 bikes. Over 20,000 residents regularly use the service, which now boasts 290 stations and 2,000-plus bikes in the city. Specific spots for the new stations have not been disclosed.