In Virginia, state law hampers zero-fare efforts for Metrobus

Riders traveling to D.C. from Virginia will still face bus fares despite District decision

By: - December 19, 2022 12:02 am

Metrobuses operate in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. (Larry Levine / WMATA)

Virginia transit officials say state law and regulations effectively prohibit the state from eliminating Metrobus fares for riders in the commonwealth, but legislative changes could alter that.

Washington, D.C.’s recent decision to eliminate fares for Metrobus riders starting next summer is part of a growing trend for transit agencies. But although Virginia lawmakers and regional bus services have been active in reducing and removing transit fares, state law could block Virginia from zeroing out its own fares for buses operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

That’s because the law sets a 3% cap on the growth of Virginia’s annual payment to WMATA. If the authority’s budget increases the commonwealth’s payments by more than 3% in any given year, state code directs the Commonwealth Transportation Board to withhold 35% of funding for capital and operating assistance. 

Board policy also includes the 3% trigger. Both law and policy note that certain expenditures — such as services, equipment or facilities required by law or regulation — aren’t included in the calculation of any increases. 

However, Jennifer DeBruhl, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said transitioning to zero-fare “doesn’t fall within one of the exception areas.”

Using Virginia’s funding for WMATA to cover the Metrobus fares in the commonwealth would “likely risk” exceeding the 3% threshold and could lead to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission losing a portion of its annual state funding, said the agency.

DeBruhl said lifting the 3% cap would require action by the General Assembly, and changing the regulations that govern how the cap is calculated and applied would require action by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. 

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who authored legislation in 2022 to incentivize transit agencies to provide reduced- and-zero fare options, said he’s uncertain whether he would support a legislative change to the statute governing WMATA funding. 

Last year, the General Assembly passed his legislation increasing the amount of funds from the state’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program that can go toward reducing or eliminating fares. The measure expires on July 1, 2024. 

Despite Washington, D.C.’s vote, without action by Virginia, riders traveling to D.C. from Maryland and the commonwealth will still have to pay bus fares.

WMATA Capital Fund

In 2018, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority formed a partnership to address the financial issues plaguing the agency, which offers rail and bus service as well as MetroAccess service for people who have a disability.  

Metrobuses operate in parts of Northern Virginia such as the cities of Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax County. 

Under the deal, the three jurisdictions pledged to establish a dedicated source of funding for WMATA to address maintenance issues and replace transit assets. To uphold its portion of the agreement, the Virginia General Assembly created the WMATA Capital Fund

This year, Virginia has contributed $200.8 million to WMATA. The funds are appropriated to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which transfers them to WMATA to be used for capital projects and operating assistance. 

Interest grows

DeBruhl said several Virginia transit systems chose to go zero-fare to keep space between bus drivers and passengers under social distancing guidelines during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As restrictions loosened, she said systems expressed interest in continuing on the zero-fare path.

Once Barker’s bill passed, funding flowed to several zero-fare pilots, including initiatives in Richmond and Alexandria. Other agencies that benefited from the bill and are offering zero-fare bus rides are Mountain Empire Older Citizens Inc., Fredericksburg Regional Transit, Charlottesville Area Transit, Petersburg Area Transit and City-University Energysaver in the city of Fairfax. Fairfax also offers half-fare cards to low-income riders.

Recently, Blacksburg Transit announced plans to eliminate its fares, but state funding will not cover them, according to DRPT.

Recent bus ridership numbers still trail pre-pandemic figures but are showing increases. In September, Virginia recorded 5 million bus and bus rapid transit riders, a record high since the height of the pandemic.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.