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New report shows behind-the-scenes look at successes and challenges of free bus overhaul

A DASH bus in Old Town Alexandria (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated 10:15 a.m. on 12/14/22) As neighboring D.C. moves forward with a fare-free bus network, Alexandria is looking back at lessons from its own first full year with a fare-free bus network.

Alexandria bus network DASH has released its first annual report on the new initiative that eliminated fares for buses.

The new report looks back at the successes and challenges from that first year — at a time when the budgetary cost means the future of the fare-free program is in question.

The report says the first year of the program has been “tremendously successful by nearly every performance metric” though it also included a look at some challenges from the last year and looming ahead.

According to the report:

  • Ridership has doubled from August 2021 to August 2022, with the largest increases occurring during the middays, evenings and weekends — though some of this may be due to the pandemic recovery.
  • DASH recorded 380,000 boardings in September 2022, the single-highest month of ridership since 2015. The report said DASH is one of the only agencies in the region that has returned to and surpassed pre-Covid ridership.
  • A customer survey said the network redesign and free fares have been two of the largest factors behind ridership growth.

The report also says there’s been an increase in job satisfaction from DASH operators, though negative interactions with passengers have increased. Customer feedback has been positive, the report said, though concerns have been raised about overcrowding — particularly on routes with large numbers of high school students.

The report says lines 31, 35 and 36 all serve a large number of high school students and the buses have seen overcrowding.

“Each of these routes are typically running every 10-15 minutes,” the report said, “however, DASH has mostly addressed these overcrowding hotspots by assigning larger 40-foot and 60-foot buses to the busiest trips and adding several unscheduled trips designed to provide adequate capacity during these periods of heightened ridership demand.”

There have also been challenges in quantifying ridership.

“First, since DASH has not yet finished its project to install automated passenger counters (APC’s) on all DASH buses, ridership data is still being collected manually by operators pressing a button for each passenger boarding,” the report said. “This method is not ideal as it means that bus operators need to count passengers in addition to their regular driving duties, which can be difficult with increased ridership and all-door boarding.”

The report also said ridership data previously collected via SmarTrip cards is no longer available, giving DASH less insight into transfers or rider types.

As the City of Alexandria heads into a tight budget season, one of the most relevant parts of the report could be the financial impacts of the program. The report looks at how much has been lost in fare revenues and where DASH can try to cover some of that loss.

According to the report:

The most significant financial impact from free fares is the loss of passenger revenues, which has traditionally been the single largest revenue source for DASH. In a typical pre-COVID year, DASH would collect approximately $4 million in passenger fares, however, that amount had decreased by more than half during the height of the pandemic. With the rapid return of ridership in FY 2022, DASH estimates that it might have collected an additional $3.5-4.0 million in revenues if the regular $2.00 fare had been collected.

DASH said that lost revenue was offset by a $1.5 million increase in the DASH subsidy from the City of Alexandria and an additional $2.6 million in grant funding from a state program.

The report notes that fare collection is, at the very least, unlikely to resume before FY 2026 — per the stipulations of the state grant.

“If DASH were to resume fare collection prior to FY 2026, the total state grand award ($7.2 million) would need to be returned,” the report said.

In the meantime, the report said DASH is still looking for alternative sources of funding.

“The budgetary impact from the first year of free fares has been largely offset by subsidy increases and state grant funding,” the report said, “while DASH continues to identify additional savings in capital and operating expenses.”

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