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National News

No fare! Free bus rides raise questions of fairness, viability.

Credit: iStock

by Tim Henderson, NC Newsline
February 21, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. — Free bus rides have made life easier for Melvin Wilson, a 28-year-old Richmond resident who was on his way to his warehouse job on a recent morning. His only worry is that fares, which once ate up $60 or more of his monthly pay, might come back and go even higher, making it harder for him to afford to get to work.

“It could throw a lot of people like me out of their comfort zone. I think people would lose their jobs over this, especially if it happened too fast,” said Wilson, who was waiting with other riders at a downtown transfer station on a cold, sunny day earlier this month.

Richmond is one of the few cities where transit systems have regained pre-pandemic ridership, according to a Stateline analysis, and waiving fares has played a large part. A $4.5 million state grant from Virginia’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program has helped make the free rides possible.

In addition to Richmond, only 22 other cities had ridership in 2023 that was equal to or higher than in 2019, and 14 of those had free rides at least part of the year, according to the Stateline analysis of National Transit Database data. The largest of the cities that fully recovered ridership all offered free rides at least part of the year: Tucson, Arizona; Albany, New York; Birmingham, Alabama; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Shreveport, Louisiana, with 2023 ridership ranging from 17.5 million in Tucson to 3.3 million in Shreveport.

It’s not surprising that free rides can juice ridership numbers for systems struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shift to at-home work. And offering free and reduced-price rides is a boon to the low-income workers who disproportionately rely on public transit. The question is whether such policies are financially sustainable — or fair, given that higher-income riders benefit too.

As is the case with Richmond, states will play a pivotal role in determining the viability of city transit systems facing diminished ridership and a “fiscal cliff” of the end of federal pandemic funding, according to a Brookings Institution report last year.

In Richmond, regional leaders first dropped fares in March 2020 during the pandemic to support essential workers and to make it easier for people to get to hospitals and doctors. Scrapping fares also prevented passengers from clustering around fare boxes and eliminated the need for some face-to-face interactions.

Officials kept the free rides when they realized how the change was helping lower-paid workers and the employers who depend on them. A survey found 71% of riders had household incomes of less than $40,000 a year, while higher-paid riders such as state employees got free passes as part of their jobs, said Henry Bendon, spokesperson for GRTC Transit System, which runs bus service in the Richmond area.

“There was an equity issue. Fares were falling on the backs of people who could least afford it,” he said. “Transit is a public service. We build roads and we don’t charge people to use them, so why should we charge for this?”

Fares were falling on the backs of people who could least afford it. Transit is a public service.

– Henry Bendon, GRTC Transit System in Richmond, Va.

Bendon took buses to work and school on a recent day — he’s studying for a master’s degree in public administration at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and many students pile onto free buses that pass by the downtown campus. Riders saw the transit insignia on his jacket and asked questions or voiced concerns, mostly about cleanliness and security on buses. But riders were generally happy with new service expansion that brought service every 15 minutes on main lines, up from every half-hour a few years ago.

Dee Otey, a 25-year-old restaurant worker at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken in Richmond, said she also worries about fares coming back higher than before. She doesn’t miss the weekly struggle to calculate her transportation needs to determine whether it made more sense to pay single fares of $1.50 or buy a weekly pass.

A free ride for all?

Other cities are grappling with the question of whether higher-income riders should support the system by paying fares. In the Worcester, Massachusetts, area, which includes part of Connecticut, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority has extended fare-free rides one year at a time, and some want to keep it that way.

Alex Guardiola, vice president of public affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said “there are many benefits to our residents and employers getting employees to their jobs as well as health care [appointments].” But some local officials see a benefit in charging fares to those who can afford it.

“I appreciate that we are trying to increase ridership, but adding riders without any increase in funding puts us in the position of not being able to afford drivers,” said Robin Grimm, town administrator for the Worcester suburb of Sturbridge and a member of the agency’s board. Using a sliding scale would still allow lower-income riders to pay less or nothing, she said.

Brian Taylor, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of the university’s Institute of Transportation Studies, said reduced or free rides make less sense in cities with more affluent commuters, such as San Francisco.

“It’s difficult to make an equity case for it,” Taylor said. “There is an excellent argument to be made for free fares in the right situation. But to do it universally would cost enormous amounts of money and actually convey benefits to high-income people who don’t need it.”

Historically, city transit systems were for-profit businesses, but they became subsidized public services after World War II when widespread car ownership made them unprofitable. Systems in Richmond and other cities that have recovered their pre-pandemic ridership have large populations that depend on public transit because they don’t have access to cars, Taylor said. Melvin Wilson, left, and Dee Otey wait for buses to go to their jobs in downtown Richmond. Both said free rides have made their lives easier and they worry about the expense and hassle if they have to pay fares to get to work. Tim Henderson/Stateline

But even in Richmond, there’s a financial strain from the loss of fare revenue, which amounts to more than $8 million a year. That loss is offset somewhat by not having to cover the $1.5 million cost of managing fare cards, plus the state money the system gets because it does not collect fares. The authority is considering asking for tax-deductible contributions from employers such as Amazon whose employees benefit from free rides, Bendon said.

“There will be some difficult conversations about funding in the next five or six years,” Bendon said. “We’ll go back to charging fares only if everything else fails. We don’t want to do that, and we don’t ever want to do that.”

Even some of the largest systems are experimenting with limited free rides. New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which Stateline found has recovered about 76% of its 2019 bus and subway ridership, is using a state grant to fund five fare-free bus routes among its 325 total routes. Washington, D.C., delayed a free city bus proposal until later this year; its regional ridership on bus and rail service, which includes suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, is about 71% of 2019 levels.

Staffing shortages

But it’s harder for very large transit systems to waive fares without damaging their finances, said Stephanie Lotshaw, director of TransitCenter, a New York City foundation devoted to transportation funding and strategy.

“In Richmond they get significant state support, and they are a small agency, but for larger operations it is less feasible,” Lotshaw said. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, for instance, received 71% of its operating costs from fares, parking and advertising before the pandemic. That figure is down to about 50% now.

And some of the big cities that have waived fares still haven’t regained pre-pandemic ridership. In New Mexico, Las Cruces and Albuquerque both have free rides, but only Las Cruces has recovered ridership fully and Albuquerque is still at about 75%, said Leslie Keener, the Albuquerque system’s transit director.

One reason is a shortage of drivers and other employees: Albuquerque has only about 62% of the service hours it did in 2019, with a job vacancy rate of 34% overall and almost 50% for mechanics.

“We have been struggling with vacancies peaking last summer. We are starting to see some hiring come back, but we still have a ways to go,” Keener said.

Richmond addressed its driver shortages by raising pay 43% to $24.91 an hour last year and waiving a requirement for a commercial license, instead requiring only a clean driving record and training.

“We set an ambitious goal to bring back the 300 drivers we needed in a year and a half, and we met that goal in pretty much half the time,” Bendon said.

Staffing shortages are part of the ridership problem with most mass transit agencies, along with decreased commuting as work-from-home becomes a permanent consequence of the pandemic, said Tracy Hadden Loh, a Brookings fellow and co-author of its recent transit report.

“Some systems are dropping way more trips than others because of lack of staffing. People can’t use something they can’t rely on,” Loh said. “There’s no doubt that free fares juice ridership. Just look at Richmond.

“So, do we cling to the fantasy that somehow transit will pay for itself,” she said, “or do we figure out a way to pay for it that really solves the free rider problem?”

This report was first published by Stateline.

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