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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Column: Metro’s job is to transport people, not discriminate with unfair fines

In theory, public transportation is for everyone, regardless of income. But while GW students mindlessly tap in and out of Metro stations and buses with U-Pass, some low-income residents face the heavy burden of transit costs, racial profiling and, later this fall, fare evasion fines. These fines represent a turn away from a truly public transportation system. If Metro fails to recognize the harm of ticketing on D.C’s low-income residents, then the D.C. Council must address Metro’s shortcomings and pass transit legislation that protects all D.C. residents’ right to use the city’s public transit.

The Metro Transit Police Department will actively fine fare evaders $50 in D.C. and $100 in Maryland and Virginia starting in November to curb the rise in pandemic-era fare evasion and Metro revenue loss. Fare evasion has previously resulted in criminal offenses, but D.C. decriminalized fare evasion in 2018 after transit police officers disproportionately targeted Black Metro riders, who accounted for 91 percent of criminal citations from 2016 to 2018. While Metro and MTPD loosely enforced those fines for the past three years, a full reinstitution of formal ticketing could lead to similar racial discrimination.

Low-income riders who avoid Metro fares will struggle to bear the burden of the reinstituted fare evasion fine. Metro General Manager Randy Clarke told the Washington Post that yearly fare evasion costs the agency $40 million, or two percent of its projected $2.4 billion operating budget in 2023. The agency is facing a funding gap of $185 million in the next fiscal year, but it shouldn’t fill it by doling out tickets when low-income riders already struggle to pay the current $2 to $6 Metro fare.

For D.C. residents below the poverty line, a few dollars a day in fares might make the difference between putting food on the table or paying the electricity bill, and a $50 fine could be the difference between life and death. Getting around the city by foot, bike or car might be an option for low-income residents who cannot afford the daily transit costs, but it can be particularly unsafe – Wards 7 and 8 comprise nearly 43 percent of total traffic fatalities in D.C. since 2011.

The 2021 D.C. Census indicates that 14.6 percent of D.C. residents are within the city’s poverty threshold, earning less than $14,000 in annual income. GW students need to be conscious of the privilege of how unlimited transit, in the form of our U-Pass cards, impacts our way of life.

WMATA’s foremost point of action should be to eliminate fare evasion fines as a whole, but if the agency fails to do so, then the D.C. Council should supplement Metro’s faults with new transit legislation. Improving public transit access for everyone is key to combating poverty in the city, and placing additional fines on top of public transit costs only exacerbates this issue. A 2014 study from New York University found a correlation between a lack of public transit access, higher rates of unemployment and decreased income in New York City. While reversing the reinstatement of fare evasion fines is the first step toward necessary change, adding an option in D.C. for individuals below the poverty line to use the Metro at a reduced rate could help alleviate some of the noticeable wealth disparities in this city.

Late last month, D.C’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment unanimously voted to advance the Metro for D.C. Act, which would grant $100 subsidies to most D.C. residents for the city’s Metrobus and Metrorail system. These subsidies would allow locals to use public transit without cutting into their own income. They would send a clear message about how public transit should operate in the DMV – with the public in mind. With the bill set to go before the Council as early as this month, city lawmakers should expedite the legislative process as much as possible and vote for the act when the time comes. And to make sure that the legislation becomes reality, students should cold-call Council members to ensure their support.

WMATA’s mission is supposed to “provide safe, equitable, reliable and cost-effective public transit.” This reinstitution of fare evasion fines is not only a violation of their intended aim, but a rebuff of their commitment to D.C.’s public. Like Metro, the Council should represent and fight for the people of this city. Our Council members need to give due diligence to legislation that could guarantee truly public transportation. If Metro won’t acknowledge the inhumanity of burying low-income riders struggling to pay the current fare under even further costs, then the D.C. Council must.

Paige Baratta, a freshman studying political science, is an opinions writer

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