DASH takes lessons from D.C., Baltimore and Oregon in eliminating bus fares

Alexandria is getting ready to go fare-free this fall, and at the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) on July 1 the architects of that plan shared some of the challenges ahead.

Josh Baker, general manager of DASH, said a fare-free bus system had been brought up before, but transit authorities started looking at an emergency pandemic-program as a way to test what the program could look like on a larger, more permanent scale.

“We saw an opportunity in being fare-free as option in pandemic [as a way to] take a deeper look at what fare-free meant for our system and how that impacted our community,” Baker said. “Ultimately what it came down to for us: here’s an opportunity to do something that requires less admin burden, less intricacies, less details.”

Baker said that the cost in lost-revenue would typically be around $4 million, one of the main challenges of implementing the program, but decreased ridership during the pandemic put that lost-revenue estimate at roughly $1.5 million.

In a presentation to the NVTC, DASH staff said the aim of the program is to reduce cost-related barriers to transit and promote awareness, as well as increasing efficiency and reliability by reducing dwell times and keeping busses moving.

The first ten months of the program are funded by the city, but staff noted that additional funding is required to cover an estimated $670,000 gap.

Zero-fare opportunities and challenges, via NVTCIn preparation for going fare-free, Baker said staff spoke with leadership at the D.C. Circulator, the Corvallis Transit System in Oregon, and the Charm City Circulator in Baltimore.

Baker said ridership increases varied between 26-59% over previous years for systems that switched to fare-free, but that success required a dedicated funding source to keep consistent quality. Customer complaints also increased initially, but fell after 2-3 months.

The DASH bus service is scheduled to start going fare-free on Sept. 5.

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