Fare or no fare? Transit agencies face tough choices amid COVID-19 budget crunch.

Fare or no fare? Transit agencies face tough choices amid COVID-19 budget crunch.
The Pulse, Richmond's new bus rapid transit line, runs every 10 minutes through 7 p.m on weekdays under a new agreement with VCU. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Thanks to ground-breaking expansion plans and record ridership numbers in 2019, the Greater Richmond Transit Company expected 2020 to be a turning point in Central Virginia’s glacial journey towards a truly regional transit system.

Instead, GRTC’s first-ever local route in Chesterfield opened during an unprecedented pandemic and eight months into the year the agency finds itself hustling to balance the safety of its riders and staff, its responsibility as an essential transportation service, and its own budget.

“This year we have had to shift from the idea of a growth model to solving the question of how do we preserve service in an environment where the state and our localities will also be trying to conserve their funding,” said GRTC CEO Julie Timm.

Although GRTC uniquely has had to reckon with looming 50 percent cuts in local funding from the City of Richmond and Henrico County due to a provision in the new Central Virginia Transportation Authority, the commonwealth’s 41 other public transportation providers find themselves in similarly uncertain situations thanks to the novel coronavirus and its impact on government coffers. In the delicate balancing act of protecting public health and avoiding crippling budget shortfalls, one of the first questions agencies have had to answer is whether to continue to charge riders or go fare free.

Fare is fair?

In the early days of the pandemic, nearly all transit agencies across the U.S. stopped collecting fares. Although the risk of virus transmission via surfaces may not be as high of a risk as sharing unfiltered air in closed spaces, transit leaders decided protecting their passengers and employees must take priority — even over agencies’ own financial well-being.

Thus, American public transportation forsook fares and began back-door boarding in an effort to reduce contact between riders and bus drivers. In Europe and Asia where all-door boarding and contactless payment have long been the norm, interventions to make transit COVID-19 safe proved easier to implement and often came at no cost to agencies’ bottom line.

Lacking any uniform guidance from the Federal Transit Administration, the closest thing to a national best practice has come from the New York based nonprofit Transit Center. “Safety has to be paramount for both riders and operators,” said Hayley Richardson, a senior communications associate with Transit Center. “Transit agencies can and should take steps to minimize contact between transit workers and riders, especially in places with rising case numbers. Suspending fare collection is the most rider- and operator-friendly policy at the moment.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.