Georgetown undergraduates overwhelmingly voted to approve the Metro U-Pass program in a GUSA referendum on April 28.
This is the first time that Georgetown students have voted on a discounted public transit system like the U-Pass. Under the program, students of participating universities receive unlimited free rides on metro buses and trains during the academic year, according to Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). This allows for easier transportation to jobs, events, and activities around D.C for students. 84.03 percent of those who turned out voted to approve the proposal, according to the GUSA Election Commission
The mandatory fee for U-Pass is expected to be equivalent to $1 per day, or around $130 per student, per semester. For students studying abroad, taking online classes, or using the Paratransit program for disabled individuals, the fee will be waived.
The U-Pass is part of the WMATA network of local Metro buses and trains with routes that extend through the District and into Virginia and Maryland. WMATA already offers free Metro rides to elementary and secondary school students in the D.C. area, but the U-Pass program provides the same service for students at D.C.-area universities.
The U-Pass programs at several universities have received high student use. At American University, one of the first D.C. universities to participate, 90 percent of full-time undergraduate and graduate students took advantage of U-Pass’s free unlimited Metro bus and train rides before the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools including Arizona State University’s and Wake Forest University’s satellite campuses in D.C. have also participated.
Supporters believe the most recent election was the ideal time to introduce the referendum. “We wanted to take advantage of the fact that Georgetown did announce its plans to become fully in-person in the fall. And with that momentum, maybe now is a good time to pass this referendum.” Sen. Rowlie Flores (COL ‘22), a co-sponsor of the referendum, said.
The U-Pass fee will be included in the cost of attendance, according to GUSA representatives Flores and Dominic Gordon (SFS ‘24). This means that overall tuition will increase, but the increased cost will be accounted for in financial aid packages.
Some senators argue the program could help pop the “Georgetown bubble,” wherein students tend to restrict their leisure activities to campus and the Georgetown neighborhood without exploring the greater D.C. area during their college years.
“We’re going to have two new classes of people that have never been on campus before,” Gordon said, who also pointed out that the U-Pass would make it easier for students to visit restaurants and sports events in the DC area.
“We think [the U-Pass] is an obligation to the community. It cuts back on CO2 and it’s going to also lead to more community exploration,” he said. Gordon argued that the pass could increase access to internship opportunities, museum visits, and trips outside of the Georgetown neighborhood.
Gordon also mentioned potential economic benefits of more student exploration of D.C. By increasing student involvement in the D.C. economy, the U-Pass has the potential to help boost a District still dealing with the economic effects of the pandemic.
However, concerns have arisen regarding both the accessibility of public transit. The Georgetown neighborhood lacks a Metrorail stop, and the U-Pass only includes WMATA metro services— of which the D.C. Circulator bus system is not a part.
Along with concerns about the $1 per day fee, the exclusion of the D.C. Circulator is part of why neither George Washington University nor Howard University have signed on.
In response, Flores argued that Metro buses are still very accessible to students on campus. “There is a bus stop literally outside of campus.” Flores said, “There’s a G2 line outside the front gates.”
An additional complication was low turnout for this referendum. While the referendum passed by a huge margin, only 1,247 undergraduates participated in this election, compared to the 1,775 students who turned out for the GUSA elections in the fall. The low turnout has led to some hesitancy from administration in implementing the U-Pass program, according to Flores.
The next steps for Georgetown’s U-Pass include meetings between GUSA and administration. If the administration agrees to implement the referendum, the university and WMATA will organize a trial period for U-Pass for Fall 2021 to determine its popularity with students.
Although there are still many details to be worked out, GUSA senators have set a goal for Georgetown’s U-Pass to be fully operational by the start of the 2022-23 academic year, according to the referendum text.
“I think [the 2022-23 goal] is achievable if the school gets working on it immediately, but we also wanted to create a very ambitious goal, so that it asks for something that kind of forces administration to get on their feet,” Flores said.
While the referendum described an unlimited U-Pass, senators have also discussed opt-in and weekend-only options.
“We’re working on a weekend pass to make it cheaper for some people, and maybe making an opt-in program. I know Metro will not budge much on that, for now, but maybe in the future, they might be open to some of that conversation,” Flores said.
Some senators doubt that the university will follow through with implementing the U-Pass referendum, citing financial concerns and low turnout. They hope that the administration will act quickly to negotiate with GUSA and WMATA in the coming months.
“We just hope the administration will respect the will of the student body and implement this as soon as possible,” Gordon said.