Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) announced it is awarding $8 million in state grant funding to GRTC to study Zero Fare impacts on RVA transit riders and the communities served by local transit.
The $8 million state grant is being matched with local funds from the City of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University and will enable GRTC to remain in Zero Fare operations through the study period of July 1, 2022, through June 30, 2025, and possibly beyond, pending ongoing local support.
GRTC suspended fare collections on March 19, 2020, in order to limit close contact between Operators and passengers at the farebox with plans to remain Zero Fare using federal COVID relief dollars until June 30, 2022. Under this state grant, both GRTC fixed route and paratransit services will remain Zero Fare to study the benefits, impacts, and sustainability of Zero Fares as well as alternative fare collection methods.
“Pre-COVID, GRTC collected approximately $5 million annually from local bus riders commuting to or from essential jobs – many of whom were living at or below poverty," said Julie Timm, GRTC CEO. "Transit fares maintained a very real barrier keeping these members of our community from accessing critical resources such as food, health care, education, and better paying jobs. Under Zero Fares, our most vulnerable neighbors have no longer been forced to choose between the cost of transportation and the cost of food or medicine. They now have ready access to these essential resources through transit service, and they have the opportunity to spend their hard-earned dollars directly at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, or the pharmacy instead of the GRTC farebox – putting those dollars directly back into the local economy.”
Before the pandemic, ridership on GRTC local bus routes made up approximately 70% of total ridership compared to express bus riders making up only 5% of ridership. The majority of local riders have annual household incomes of less than $25,000 with a quarter of riders making under $10,000 a year. However, they were paying about $20 per week or more per person to ride the bus compared to most express riders who typically had bus passes fully subsidized by their employers. Pulse ridership, about 25% of all GRTC trips, was about 50% local bus riders pre-COVID.
As of November 2021, GRTC’s local ridership exceeds pre-pandemic ridership (up nearly 10% compared to ridership data in November 2019).
“To reduce barriers to transit for low-income individuals, the TRIP Zero Fare pilot will allocate $8 million in funding over the next three years to support system-wide zero fare for GRTC,” said Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “DRPT evaluated and prioritized projects based on CTB criteria and recommended funding to GRTC based on the defined and quantifiable measures of success, the collaborative development environment as evidenced by the support of various regional partners and local organization, and the ease of implementation. These pilot projects will provide increased access to our essential workforce who rely on public transportation for employment, education, healthcare, and basic human needs."
The net budget for GRTC’s Zero Fare program over three years is $20.4 million after removing over $1.2 million annually in fare collection costs. The DRPT $8 million grant steps down over three years from $4.5 million, to $2.5 million to $1 million respectively.