The DC Circulator is the city's free bus service. (Courtesy photo)
The DC Circulator is the city's free bus service. (Courtesy photo)

Many D.C. residents are excited about the prospect of permanently making the city-funded Circulator bus system a free service, but a key member of the city council has expressed reservations about that idea.

However, District residents say that the Circulator needs to stay free.

“I think that is a great idea,” Kier Williams said standing at a bus stop on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. “Some people can’t afford the Metrobus.”

The Circulator, which was founded in 2005, runs at 10-minute intervals and makes stops at DuPont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn, Georgetown-Union Station, Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square Metro, Eastern Market-L’Enfant, Congress Heights-Union Station and the National Mall.

The bus system is a product of a public-private partnership spearheaded by the D.C. transportation department and encompasses Metro, D.C. Surface Transit and RATP Development.

It initially charged passengers $1 per trip until February, when D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) decided to convert it to a free service on a trial basis.

In her State of the District address in March, Bowser noted the positive response and said “you liked it so much we did it again in March.”

“Over these past few weeks, workers at hotels, restaurants and shops have stopped me at the checkout counters, at the diners, telling me how much they appreciate the free Circulator,” the mayor said. “We may not think about it, because it’s just $1 each way, $2 a day, but for a working person, it adds up. And so we went back to our budget books to see what else we could do, and I’m proud to say that we will make the DC Circulator free from now on.”

Outside of the District, Baltimore’s privately-funded Charm City Circulator exists as the only known free bus service in a major municipality that’s not directly connected with a college or university. Internationally, Luxembourg will be the first country in the world to make its publicly transit free, starting in March 2020 and Germany has studied the idea to cut down on air pollution.

However, D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, has expressed concerns.

“I would like to know more about this decision to make it free and the costs and benefits of it, because, I must say, the more I’ve looked into this, the more skeptical I’ve become of this plan,” Cheh said at a recent committee meeting.

Cheh’s support would be helpful but not crucial to the free Circulator proposal getting through the council’s approval of the budget and no other council member has expressed hostility to the idea.

Jeff Marootian, director of the transportation department, told reporters on April 18 that the costless Circulator has strong support.

“We have heard that there is positive energy around a free Circulator and have gotten 900 new riders,” he said, adding that plans to make the Circulator free have been in place for years and “will cut in the time for passengers to board and for operators to make their scheduled stops consistently.”

Marootian said expansion plans are in the works to go to Penn Branch and Skyland Town Center in Ward 7. He also noted that the February ridership rose slightly and it will cost the District $3.1 million to the make the free Circulator a full-time operation.

Marootian said the influx of new buses will keep the Circulator from becoming run-down as a result of being free.

Jane Souder, who rides the Circulator on a regular basis, supports it being free but can understand Cheh’s point of view.

“It should be free,” Souder said. “The trolley is free and we need something to relieve us from the high costs of transit in this city. There should be something to make everybody happy though.
“Maybe there can be times when it costs money to ride. Who knows?”

Aminata Phillips, who operates a hot dog stand in a Southeast park, supports the free Circulator “because Metro is too high.”

“You can’t always afford to ride Metro,” she said. “You don’t want to go to jail for fare evasion because you can’t pay a fare on Metro but you have to get around.”

Phillips said her customers and people in the community ask her for fare money to catch the bus and she accommodates when she can.

“I don’t have to do that as much because of the Circulator being free,” she said.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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