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Extension of free GRTC services strikes question about public transit

Relief shelters now open, GRTC sets routes to help transport residents
Posted at 5:24 PM, Jun 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-15 17:45:56-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- GRTC riders will not pay a fare to catch a bus for more than two years after the transit company announced they would continue their zero-fare policy through June 2022.

In March 2020, GRTC suspended fares during the pandemic. Due to federal and state COVID-relief funding, the company says they can cover the $5 to $6 million in the operational budget typically covered by fares.

“We know from before the pandemic, the majority of our fares were collected from low-income riders, who were purchasing their rides one at a time or by the day,” said Carrie Rose Pace, GRTC’s Director of Communications. “Transportation is a huge part of so many of our rider’s budgets for their home, and what we have seen is if we remove that barrier, our ridership has actually rebounded faster than most of our peer transit system who reinstitute fare collection.”

Rose Pace pointed to bus ridership data in Hampton Roads that shows ridership in that region has not recovered like in the Richmond metro. Fares were reinstated there but not in GRTC’s coverage area.

GRTC was studying ridership data during the pandemic, and although their overall numbers slipped, Rose Pace said routes that pass through historically economically disadvantaged communities did not see the same declines.

“Routes that serve a variety of Richmonders and beyond, but they do go through some of our low-income communities that have been historically disinvested in. So, as you have the broader zero-fare conversation, you have to face head-on the equity conversation,” she said. “When you remove the barrier of fares, you are going to ensure that those riders who are the essential workers, who are getting to essential goods and services, that they can continue to connect with those resources.”

The move comes as some metro regions around the country grapple with the question of whether or not public transportation should become a free public service. Critics of such ideas point out that taxpayers would be footing the bill even though not everyone uses such services; proponents argue making public transit free expanded economic mobility.

GRTC’s zero-fare policy only goes through June 2022 at this point. Rose Pace said talks are in the early stages with funding partners and the state about a new pilot program that could extend it beyond next summer.

“GRTC is already having these conversations with our local and state partners about what’s next. We have time now through this next fiscal year to have those conversations,” she said.

GRTC riders at the Pulse stop near Willow Lawn Tuesday afternoon welcomed the news.

VCU student Wejdan Aboalkhoyour said she will continue to access parts of the region she would not otherwise.

“With the bus, I was able to do grocery shopping, get more stuff, but then also volunteering, which is really great,” she said. “Having a bus system that’s free is kind of a game-changer for a lot of people. You can hop on different buses and that sort of stuff. I really think it’s important to have a transportation method that’s open to everybody.”

Free bus rides served as a lifeline for Ormani Byrd during the pandemic.

“After the pandemic hit, I lost my job,” she said. “I went to job interviews. I actually have two, three jobs now. I have my own personal tutoring business and I work over here at the restaurant and at Burlington, so I commute regularly.”

Byrd is hopeful the region finds a way to continue a zero-fare policy for the bus system. As the economy continues recovering from the pandemic, she thinks free public transit has major personal and regional economic benefits.

“Most people who live in low-income areas use the system, so it will be a big help for them. Why not help those areas? We’re talking people who need to pick up for daycare, for jobs,” Byrd said. “Things opening back up, I could see people coming back out more, being able to interact with the community, and put those funds back into the community. So, if people have free transportation, they’ll be able to come out and spend money at the businesses.”

You can find out more about the zero-fare policy at ridegrtc.com.