Free rides on Richmond Transit buses to continue indefinitely under adopted 2020-2021 budget

By C. SUAREZ ROJAS Richmond Times-Dispatch

Many commuters are still relying on public transit to get to work. GRTC says ridership has declined by only 20% in recent months compared to the same period last year.JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH

GRTC bus fares will remain indefinitely suspended — potentially for another 12 months — under the transit agency’s adopted budget for the fiscal year that begins Wednesday.

The decision to forgo revenue collection is intended to keep bus operators and passengers safe by making commuters enter through the rear of the bus and bypass ticket vending machines and fare boxes that would otherwise pose a risk for transmitting the coronavirus.

“It doesn’t make sense to put fares back ,” said GRTC CEO Julie Timm. “We don’t know when COVID-19 is going to go away.”

Despite losing $1.7 million after suspending fare collection in mid-March in response to the pandemic, the adopted $73.9 million budget for the next year is $20.1 million larger than the current year’s. The agency is increasing its budget to make sure buses are cleaned more frequently.

Since the onset of the pandemic in March, 14 of the agency’s employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

A $32 million grant from the federal CARES Act covers much of the enlarged expenditures in the upcoming budget year. (GRTC allocated $3.6 million from the aid package to cover lost revenue and increased expenditures over the past three months.)

A new regional transit funding model approved by the General Assembly this year also creates a revenue stream for the agency through sales and wholesale gas taxes collected from localities in the Richmond area.

The new funding is expected to amount to $10 million next year, but GRTC is holding those funds until a new regional transportation authority is formed.

Another $3.6 million from the federal aid package will also be held in emergency reserve in case the pandemic worsens.

Transportation policy analysts said many transit agencies around the country are temporarily moving toward free service during the pandemic for the same reasons as GRTC.

Joe McAndrew, an analyst for the Greater Washington Partnership, said transit systems that do not have touchless methods for paying fares are suspending them to reduce the risk of transmission.

In the near term, most bus systems in the U.S. are running fare-free,” he said. “I believe the trend will be that most agencies will continue to do that as long as there isn’t an ability to pay at the back door.”

Timm said another consideration for continuing to operate without collecting fares is the economic fallout of the pandemic. With ridership having declined by only 20% in recent months compared to the same period last year, many commuters are still relying on public transit to get to work. What’s more, 54% of GRTC’s passengers have a household income below $25,000, according to the transit agency.

“From what I’m hearing, most people are predicting that the economy will recover slowly,” she said. “So even when it’s more manageable, we’ll still need to think about people who need public transit to get back on their feet.”

Prior to the pandemic, there were some conversations among GRTC leadership about adopting a zero-fare model after Kansas City moved to it this year. Both Timm and McAndrew said the extended suspension of fare collection could lead to more robust discussions about how that might possible in Richmond.

McAndrew said a question transit agencies would need to answer in those discussions is whether it’s worth the cost of increased fare enforcement to make up for lost revenue from fare evasion. It’s possible, he said, that investing more to make public transit free could lead to increased ridership and economic benefits for the community by improving access to jobs, health care and commercial centers.

“I would imagine there’s more transit agencies that go to free transit permanently,” he said. “The question is how broadly and quickly do they move in that direction.”

Timm said the idea is ultimately in improving social equity, and that it will be discussed when GRTC’s directors and other local leaders consider when fares should be reintroduced.

“I think it’s a critical conversation for this region as we define who we are and what this community stands for,” she said.

That is not to say transit service is sure to become free. If relief funds dry up faster than expected, GRTC may need to collect fares again soon, Timm said.

And beyond the next year, the pending creation of a new regional transit authority will lead to discussions about expanding bus routes and purchasing larger buses to meet growing ridership.

The GRTC board will meet again next month to review the proposed capital budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Adoption of that budget is expected to happen in August. (804) 649-6178