Transit Subsidy Program Excludes the Needy

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Many of the District of Columbia’s neediest residents are missing out on a program that allows thousands of workers in the area ride the Metro nearly free of charge as they commute to and from their jobs.

The SmartBenefits program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and provides subsidies for commuters through SmartTrip cards, has been around since President Bill Clinton’s administration. However, because most of its beneficiaries are government workers – it hasn’t been widely publicized – it passes over commuters who need it most, according to Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, head of the Council’s transportation committee.

“Particularly poor people who are transit-dependent to a very large extent because they don’t have cars as often as people who have more money,” said Graham, alluding to a 2008 U. S. Census report which states the median income that year for African Americans households in the District was $23,490 compared to just over $70,000 for White households. “So they’re more dependent on buses and rails,” he said of the city’s low-income residents. “We know statistically that [in most cases] the income of persons who ride the buses is considerably lower than the median income of people who ride the rail.”

Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato refrained from speaking directly about how the system – which has beleaguered by a series of derailments, other mishaps and budget shortfalls – benefits from the program. Instead, she said the program involves about 40 percent of the system’s riders, who will not be affected by a proposed fare hike that could equate to $5.95 for a one-way rail trip.

Currently, the 120,000 federal employees who are taking advantage of the program are receiving as much as $230 a month in transportation allowances, which essentially covers their monthly transportation needs.

“It’s a significant subsidy,” Graham said, “and for most people it would cover all their rides.”

On the other hand, Graham said that overall, transportation for District commuters has always been a critical issue. He said although he has fought increases in Metro fares – which only increased this year after a two-year moratorium – the hike prevailed only because Metro officials, amid budget woes, “had no place else to turn.”

Graham recalled that at one time there had been a similar subsidy project in the planning stages aimed at District of Columbia government employees. But those plans, he said, eventually fell through.

However, “some private companies set up such ride programs as part of their compensation packages,” he said, “so it’s not just limited to federal employees.”

According to Peter Sepp, spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Taxpayers Union, a non-partisan, 362,000-member advocacy organization that works on behalf of overburdened taxpayers, while the program “is pretty advantageous” to federal workers, private employees who participate can reap up to $110 a month for the program. In doing so, their employers can deduct that money from their taxes.

“The federal government by far is the biggest practitioner in the subsidy program and due to the extent that a large number of federal employees use Metro, the program helps to maintain a high level of support for the system as well,” Sepp said.

But he pointed out that in the past the Government Accountability Office analyzed the use of benefits and found that in some cases, federal employees were misusing them. “Some people were getting the subsidy and selling the benefits to others because they weren’t using all of the $230 fare,” Sepp explained. “And that’s been a problem that’s only been partially addressed.” He added, “Unfortunately, there are still some kinks in the program to work out.”

Meanwhile, he said the program can be a boon to the troubled system largely because attracting more commuters can serve to encourage others who don’t get a subsidy, to ride.

“People will say that if so many people use it, then it’s got to be a good way to get around,” said Sepp.