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VRE could extend ‘fare-free’ season into October for Alexandria

While the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is working through plans to make September fare-free for all riders, that could be extended into October for Alexandria riders dealing with the Metro shutdown.

Plans for the VRE are headed to review at the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission’s meeting on Thursday, July 7.

A report (page 155) from VRE CEO Rich Dalton said that while the pandemic has hit VRE’s ridership, a month without fares would simultaneously be a “thank you” to loyal customers and could attract new riders to the VRE:

September is typically a month where the regional transportation system is strained, as kids return to school and workers return from summer vacation, and it historically has been one of the highest ridership months for VRE. This September, many federal agencies are expected to transition to more permanent in-office work schedules, moving away from the remote work scenarios implemented during the pandemic. While many agencies and private employers will still allow some teleworking, most will require a higher in-office presence for their workers. Staff believes offering free fares for the month of September will encourage commuters who are considering various commute options to try VRE.

The fare-free month also coincides with the start of the shutdown of Metro lines south of National Airport.

“Starting on September 10th, WMATA will shut down Metrorail stations south of Reagan National Airport on both the Blue and Yellow Lines,” the report said. “This shutdown will last at least six weeks, and VRE will be a major contributor to the mitigation efforts in the region. Allowing riders to board for free during September will maximize usage of VRE during the first half of the shutdown.”

The report also says VRE is planning to extend the free fare into October for riders traveling between Alexandria or Crystal City and either going across the river to L’Enfant or union Station or going south towards Franconia-Springfield.

“Providing free fares for these zones in October will continue VRE’s enhanced role in mitigating the effects of the Metrorail shutdown,” the report said.

The report said passenger fare revenue in April and May this year has been between $1.1 and $1.2 million.

“We do not expect significant growth in ridership from this level during the summer months, but ridership in September is expected to increase as employees return to the office,” the report said. “If average daily ridership were to increase to 10,000 trips per day, the expected monthly fare revenue would also increase to approximately $2.3 million.”

The foregone fare revenue, the report said, would be between $1.2 and $2.3 million — without factoring in the impact of the Metrorail shutdown.

“VRE’s existing federal pandemic relief funds will provide a backstop to replace this foregone revenue,” the report said. The expected impact to VRE of the proposed free fares in September and October for zones 2/3 specifically is more modest. Current ridership to/from/between zones 2 and 3 is relatively small at only 400 trips per day, with most of that ridership occurring at the
Backlick Road station. Of course, if a significant share of passengers impacted by the Metrorail shutdown shift over to VRE, that figure could increase substantially.”

The report said the VRE will be applying to a grant from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to cover the lost funds for offering fare-free transportation in Alexandria.

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