Everyone knows that Metro is facing enormous financial challenges that affect not only our daily commutes but also the economic vitality of our region. And everyone knows that the income inequality gap in DC is wide and not getting better as the city continues to grow.
Believe it or not, there is one simple thing the District can do to alleviate these seemingly unconnected issues: provide transportation assistance to residents in adult education classes.
DC residents who try to improve their job prospects by participating in adult education programs find that transportation costs, usually bus fare, often keep them from completing their programs and fulfilling their dreams. The recent announcement that Metro bus and rail fares will rise this summer means that the problem will get worse unless we do something about it.
The District’s signature “Kids Ride Free” program created a few years ago means that public school students can get to class without worrying about the cost. But this great program is only open to “kids.” Extending Kids Ride Free to adult learners would cost no more than $2 million but would accomplish two big things. It would improve the return on DC’s substantial investment in adult education by helping more students complete programs successfully. And it would shore up WMATA’s finances, because the $2 million program cost would go straight to them.
Who doesn’t love a twofer?
Unfortunately Mayor Bowser’s just-released budget proposal does not make the modest investment needed. It’s now up to the DC Council, which should find a way to fund this program before the May 30 budget vote.
Helping more adults succeed in education and training is important to DC’s future. By 2018 some 70 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education or training. Meanwhile 60,000 DC residents lack a high school diploma or equivalent. Over half of the students in adult education programs test at a sixth-grade level or below in reading and/or math, and it takes time for learners to build skills and advance to the next level of their career or education.
Transportation cost is a major barrier to attending and remaining in educational programs. While students through age 22 do not have to pay to ride Metro bus or rail because they are enrolled in the Kids Ride Free program, students over age 22 have to pay the full price, which can threaten their ability to succeed. Over a third of DC’s adult learners reported their biggest transportation concern is cost, according to a 2016 survey of 1,000 adults by the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition. This significant financial burden means that many adults hoping to move ahead in their lives find themselves stuck in a frustrating cycle of enrolling and dropping out.
This is not surprising given that adults in education classes often are unemployed or underemployed. Taking the bus to class can cost $70 per month, and the $0.25 bus fare hike coming in July will add another $10 per month. With many DC households living on less than $10,000 a year, transportation costs for just one person could consume 10 percent of a family’s limited income unless we do something about it.
Transiting to ‘All Learners Ride Free’
The transportation problems of adult learners are attracting attention. Last fall, the Office of the DC Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) released a report highlighting this significant need and recommended expanding the Kids Ride Free program to all District residents enrolled in a publicly funded adult education program. It would cost $1.5 million to $2 million to serve the 7,500 students who are enrolled in community-based organizations (CBOs), UDC’s Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning programs (WDLL), and adult charter and alternative education schools ‒ and are not currently receiving assistance.
A Smart Investment
The District currently invests over $80 million in local and federal dollars to support adult education. The relatively modest cost of expanding Kids Ride Free to adult learners ‒ which our surveys suggest could lead to 30 percent more successful outcomes for program participants ‒ seems well worth the additional investment. The DME’s report notes that “the current investment in adult education could yield greater results with a reduction in transportation costs for adult learners.”
Expanding Mayor Bowser’s signature Kids Ride Free program to adults would be a smart and cost-effective way to provide transportation assistance. It would leverage a technology infrastructure whose kinks have been ironed out and that now runs pretty smoothly. Using Kids Ride Free would also allow DC to take advantage of the low cost negotiated with Metro. Currently DC pays Metro just $0.65 daily for each pupil. This means that the cost of providing transportation assistance though Kids Ride Free is much more cost-effective than other ways of funding such a program.
Good for Metro and Our Economy
The additional ridership would help shore up WMATA’s finances. Even at $0.65 per ride, WMATA will benefit financially since many adult education programs take place at non-peak hours, when Metro has excess capacity. At a recent budget oversight hearing, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld noted that WMATA would be able to implement the program, if it is funded, and that the added revenues and stability of ridership would help WMATA.
No adult should be kept away from class by something as simple as not having bus fare. Removing the barrier of transportation costs would make it easier for adults to achieve their educational goals, and give them greater access to jobs from which they’ve been previously shut out. That will benefit not just them and their families but also Metro and our broader economy.
Ilana Boivie is the senior policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org), which conducts research on tax and budget issues affecting low- and moderate-income DC residents.