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One In Four Virginia Transit Agencies Operate Fare-Free; Should Others Follow Their Lead?

“Every mode of transportation is subsidized; the question is how much."

Photo: Wyatt Gordon for the Virginia Mercury|

A Blacksburg Transit bus rolls through downtown Blacksburg.

Editor's note: this article originally appeared on the Virginia Mercury and is republished with permission.

Economists teach us that few things are more dangerous to society’s provision of public goods than a free rider, but the government provides many public goods — K-12 education, highways and libraries, for example — completely for free. Increasingly, elected officials and the public are coming to understand that the societal benefits of offering something to everyone for free (like school lunches) can often outweigh the cost of policing who has access.

Over the last four years since the pandemic began, many politicians and members of the public have similarly come to rethink the value of public transportation, especially to society’s essential workers. One in four Virginia transit agencies have maintained zero-fare service, with prominent elected officials pledging to keep buses free.

Although building up the political will to keep fares free can take years, many localities across the commonwealth have decided that the value of affordable public transportation for their residents is worth every penny.

Finite fares

Although the push to eliminate fares in places like the country of Luxembourg — where all transit is free nationwide — focused on the economic, efficiency and environmental benefits of the policy, five years ago, the movement to get rid of fares on public transportation in America was largely driven by a desire to move away from the racialized undertonesof fare evasion and enforcement.  However, transit agencies in Virginia first dropped fares in 2020 to reduce interactions between passengers and their employees to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Eight transit systems across the commonwealth continue to operate without fares allowing riders in Albemarle, Alexandria, Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Chesterfield, Christiansburg, the City of Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Henrico, Lee County, Norton, Petersburg, Richmond, Scott County, Stafford, Spotsylvania and Wise County unfettered access to public transportation.  Although the pandemic catalyzed the shift, economics have allowed the policy to stay in place.

Public transit never turns a profit, but in some big cities with large suburban commuter bases like New York, D.C. and San Francisco fares generated up to a third of revenue pre-pandemic.  Transit systems in mid-sized cities, towns, and rural areas rarely pull in more than five percent of their funding from the farebox, and much of that money is wasted on the bureaucracy of fares rather than being spent on improving service.  A 2023 report found that in Los Angeles, “for every fare dollar Metro collects, Metro spends $0.75 on the expenses of collecting and enforcing fares.”

Unlike all other Virginia systems which went fare-free with assistance from the Transit Ridership Incentive Program — a state grant designed to boost ridership, the Town of Blacksburg permanently eliminated bus fares one year ago simply because it made fiscal sense.

“Regular bus fares were bringing in just $50,000 a year — less than 1% of Blacksburg Transit’s annual budget, so we were able to absorb the cost of eliminating bus fares administratively without any problem” said Michael Sutphin, a local city council member who campaigned for reelection on the issue and won. “Previously, a lot of staff time was spent on processing fares or on fare disputes, so this saves our drivers time. It’s a significant help to our residents and we have only heard positive feedback from them.”

Rural systems like Bluefield Transit on the West Virginia border could benefit the most from going fare-free. With each ride costing just a quarter, the agency brings in only $8,000 a year from fares and spends more than that on the equipment and staff time to collect them. The social impact of free public transportation in rural regions is also huge.

“$1.50 for a trip doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but if you’re working minimum wage or you’re trying to feed your family, $3 a day is a lot of money,” said Mitch Elliott, the director of Mountain Empire Transit. “I can understand the concerns of public transit being free in systems with millions of riders, but it costs us more to do all the paperwork and collecting than the 3 percent of revenue we would make off fares. We’re changing people’s lives and how they get around, being free.”

Improv approach

National critics of zero-fare transit love to argue that the money agencies forfeit by not charging riders could be better spent improving service, but proponents of the policy don’t support fare-free transit as a silver bullet.  Rather, they see it as one part of a multi-pronged approach to avoiding systems’ rapidly approaching “death spiral” due to reduced ridership since COVID. Furthermore, the funding to replace fares in Virginia has largely come from TRIP grants and boosted state and federal funds thanks to the higher ridership that zero-fare transit induces.

The Greater Richmond Transit Company is at 105 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership (sixth place nationwide among the 100 largest metro areas) because regional leadership has undertaken big improvement projects such as redesigning routes and building out bus rapid transit. The same can be said of Alexandria’s DASH bus system, which logged its highest ridership in four decades this summer.

“We are breaking ridership records not just because of fare-free,” said outgoing Alexandria mayor Justin Wilson. “Not a lot of people in the world will ride the bus just because it is free. They ride the bus because it is bringing them where they need to go. What we are doing though is reducing one of the barriers that makes it harder for people to consider transit a viable option for them, and, from a social justice perspective, we are essentially providing that significant portion of our transit-dependent bus riders a reduction of their expenses.”

The transit-dependent population that has perhaps benefited most from fare-free bus service in Alexandria has been the city’s children. Whereas school buses run their routes just twice per day, a city bus comes as frequently as every 10-15 minutes, allowing kids more freedom to participate in after school activities, take on a job or hang out with friends. Parents also don’t have to chauffeur their children to and from everything either.

The result has been an “enormously popular” policy that the city intends to keep in place for the foreseeable future, according to Wilson. “I constantly get emails from people saying this has been hugely impactful, and that’s not something we always get here in local government.”

Whereas fare-free public transportation was once seen as a pipe dream among Pollyannas, the pandemic and the practical experience of local leaders across the commonwealth is slowly shifting the Overton Window on the issue.

“Every mode of transportation is subsidized,” Wilson said. “The question is how much. In this case, we increased the subsidy as we do with roads, but in the grand scheme of things it is a small amount and the benefit is huge.”

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