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DASH bus could be completely free starting this fall

Alexandria’s DASH bus network could soon be completely free for all passengers.

In a recent newsletter, Mayor Justin Wilson said he is proposing to make DASH free for all riders to go along with a planned overhaul of the bus network going into effect in September.

“To coincide with the implementation of this new route structure, I will be proposing that we use this opportunity to make DASH free for all riders,” said Wilson. “Free transit will expand ridership by an estimated 23%, bring riders back to transit following the pandemic, help achieve the City’s environmental goals and disproportionately benefit our lower-income residents. With ridership depressed due to the pandemic, the initial cost to implement this change is dramatically reduced.”

The move comes after a brief window when DASH stopped collecting fares during the pandemic, a practice it resumed last month.

In answer to a budget question from Mayor Justin Wilson, staff included full fare elimination as one of four possible scenarios, which also included off-peak fare elimination and free or reduced fare for low-income residents.

While Wilson said in the newsletter that the initial amount of revenue lost in the change would be relatively low at first, staff noted in the response that over the next few years the amount of money not-collected in fares would go up as ridership returns.

According to staff, the levels of funding left off-the-table by eliminating fare collection is project to look something like this:

FY23 Full DASH Fare Elimination: $3,912,107
FY24 Full DASH Fare Elimination: $4,961,078
FY25 Full DASH Fare Elimination: $5,512,309

Staff said the change would require the city to increase it’s funding to DASH over time.

“It should be noted that due to one time use of $2.9 million in one time federal relief funding in FY 2022, the City support of the DASH budget will need to increase by approximately $0.9 million in FY 2023, assuming the projected return of passenger revenue,” staff said. “This increase does not include current services adjustments or any supplementals that may be approved. Therefore, any fare reduction initiative will add to that subsidy increase.”

The change would come in the middle of DASH shifting from a coverage-based system, that prioritizes bus access geographically, to a service-based system, which would realign bus routes to prioritize areas of greater density to increase service quality for more Alexandrians while leaving some in less-dense parts of the city with limited or no access to the bus.

There has been some haggling over how much service would be cut to less dense areas, with DASH agreeing to restore some bus lines through the Seminary Hill area. But staff has noted that the level of coverage could depend on the upcoming budget with City Manager Mark Jinks saying fully funding both a geographic coverage and greater service in areas of higher density are incompatible with his suggestion to decrease the real estate tax rate.

While the City Council has ruled out increasing the tax rate, it’s not clear yet whether the Council will go along with the proposed tax rate reduction.

“The City Council will ultimately determine the future of this proposal as we work to finalize our budget this month,” Wilson said.

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