Alexandria’s DASH bus system has been going through a pair of ambitious, headline-grabbing overhauls, but city leaders are still working out how to pay for them.
In 2021, DASH went fully fare-free, meaning anyone could ride a DASH bus at any time without paying for a ticket. At the same time, the bus network has been undergoing a full-electric conversion, gradually swapping out all of the diesel buses for electric buses.
But in addition to hurdles like a lack of charging infrastructure, DASH faces the budgetary challenge of how to pay for the expensive new electric buses.
Deputy Director of Transportation Hillary Orr spoke to the Transportation Commission last week about the budget challenges facing DASH.
The city has applied for a federal grant to help convert 10 of the city’s aging buses to electric, but Orr said if the city doesn’t get that grant, the city will have to buy diesel buses rather than electric.
“If not matched, we would buy clean diesel buses because we need to replace these buses,” Orr said.
One Commissioner suggested the city could pay more for electric buses, but Orr said even using what money was set aside for DASH improvements to buy electric buses instead of diesel buses would leave the city with several buses past their expected replacement date.
“We could pay more, but then we’d have a bunch of buses that are expired because we don’t have enough with $4.8 million to replace all the clean diesels we need to replace,” Orr said. “We have 10 buses expiring… We’re doing our best to cobble together what we can and then we’ll see what we get. Whatever’s remaining, we’ll buy what we can.”
Even if Alexandria does buy more diesel buses, Orr said the city will still be on track for its goal to have a fully electric bus fleet by 2037.
“If we bought clean diesel buses, we would still be on track with our goal for 2037 having a full fleet,” Orr said. “It’s not until fiscal year 2025 that we need to start buying all-electric.”
Some on the Transportation Commission said they still hope DASH can accelerate the bus fleet electrification. According to Commissioner Jim Maslank:
I’d like to make a motion that we consider in our letter to the council that they consider additional funds as a contingency if we don’t get the money. It’s an opportunity: the whole world is going electric. 2037 is a long way away. It would be a budgetary tradeoff, but I think this committee — I personally feel we should accelerate that change, but it is going to cost the city more money. There will be tradeoffs, but that’s how I feel.
Meanwhile, the City of Alexandria will also be shouldering more of DASH’s operating costs as the bus system is weaned off the state’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP).
“[There’s a] 18% increase in DASH funding from [fiscal year] 2023 to meet increased operating costs and decreased TRIP grant funding,” Orr said. “We get less and less each year. The TRIP grant was a grant we received when DASH went fare-free, with a little over $7 million over a four-year period. In the fourth year, DASH has to commit to being fare-free without any commitment from the state.”
“It’s like baby steps,” a Transportation Commission member said.
“Baby steps down to zero,” Orr replied less enthusiastically.
The FY 2024 budget is scheduled for adoption on May 3.
Photo via DASHbus/Facebook
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