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Price tag for Alexandria’s bus network puts fare-free future in jeopardy

City staff said changes to the DASH bus network over the last year have been a monumental success, but one with a high cost only likely to increase over time.

Over the last two years, Alexandria’s DASH bus system has gone through a series of dramatic changes, from a complete overhaul of the route system to changes to strollers and how the buses are boarded. But at a City Council retreat last week, city staff made it very clear the current balance of costs and revenue spells trouble in the near term.

“On the capital side, with what we have set aside for bus replacement, the cost of maintaining a state of good repair and electrifying [the bus fleet], we’re struggling to find the funds to do all that work,” said Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES).

Lambert said it’s important to keep that swelling cost in mind as the city heads into budget season this spring.

“On the DASH side, we’re doing some fantastic things in transit, but the challenge for us is that operating what I would consider a best-in-class transit system is challenging and expensive,” Lambert said. “Operating costs are expensive and we need to make sure we head into this with eyes wide open.”

Lambert said that, at the current rate, in just a few years the DASH subsidy will increase from the current $23.6 million to $45 million annually.

City Council member John Chapman said the discussion raised red flags about the bus system’s future and broached the question of whether or not fare-free will remain a permanent state for the bus system.

“To me: saying transit investments need to be placed on a sustainable path and not presenting what that pathway is is a big red flag to me,” Chapman said. “To say ‘hey, we don’t have this money and we don’t think it’s going to happen,’ so how do we look at cutting back or finding other opportunities to put us on a sustainable path?”

Chapman said those discussions about putting DASH onto a more sustainable path are going to have to happen sooner rather than later.

“I want to be helpful, but I want to hear solutions for right now rather than further in the future because we are going to have budgetary decisions to make in the spring,” Chapman said. “If we’re going to do fare-free: how do we make that sustainable or is that a program we do for a few years and then find a way to not do that?”

Staff said DASH was collecting around $4 million in fares before the fare-free program was put into effect — not an insignificant amount, but still not enough to accommodate for the DASH expenditures.

“When we get to budget season, I want to have those hard conversations instead of saying ‘we’re going to have a 14% increase on transit [costs]’ and then keep moving,” Chapman said. “We need to be able to go back to taxpaying residents and businesses and say ‘we understand this is going to affect your standard of living coming out of a pandemic and into a possible recession, and we are still doing the best with our funding that we can.'”

Lambert said figures from DASH and Metro recovery showed buses recovered ridership more quickly from the pandemic than Metro did, saying the numbers emphasized that buses are the real “people movers” in Alexandria and did much of the heavy lifting for public transit during the pandemic.

Mayor Justin Wilson said there may be room to expand DASH operations while still making more efficient use of city funding by folding some aspects of the city school bus network into DASH. Wilson said the city could reach a place where DASH buses replace middle and high school bus services for Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS).

“This is an opportunity,” Wilson said. “Anything we can do to use capacity we’ve already invested in more efficiently is a good thing. The opportunity for partnership with ACPS is one of those opportunities, particularly at the middle school and high school levels.”

Wilson said the future of public transportation could involve replacing school buses for high school and middle school students with DASH bus lines.

“I want to be explicit: it’s not just ‘hey we can supplement what they’re doing,’ it’s potentially figuring out a way we get rid of ACPS transportation for middle and high and come up with a scenario where DASH route network can do that,” Wilson said.

DASH’s financial forecast is one part of a looming challenge for the city — a swelling budget faced with stagnating growth in a potential “pasta bowl recession.” According to Arthur Wicks, budget manager of the Capital Improvement Program:

We’ve embarked on a very ambitious capital program over the last couple of years… the big takeaway is: the expense of having a CIP the size we have is going to exceed what revenue growth can absorb. Our capital programs have become larger and more complex than what we can execute. We’ve come to you during the last few years of retreats and said a big CIP expense increase is coming and we find ways to shave it down and make it bearable. We’ve kind of used up our bag of tricks on that.

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