The coronavirus pandemic hurt transit from the start, taking away riders and fare revenue that agencies depend on to keep buses and trains rolling. But it also shone a light on the importance of public transportation, which carried carless “essential” workers to shifts at grocery stores, takeout restaurants, clinics and fire stations while providing lifelines to seniors and low-income families.

Most agencies stopped collecting bus fares and required rear-door boarding to limit virus risks for bus operators. That extra money in the pockets of riders helped families stabilize their finances, while it often was spent in local businesses, transit advocates say.

Nationally, a movement to make public transportation fare-free has gained momentum. In the Washington region, Alexandria’s DASH system hopped onboard.

On Sept. 5, DASH will become the first transit agency in the D.C. area to end fares (the D.C. Circulator is fare-free until Sept. 30). DASH General Manager Josh Baker spoke to The Washington Post about the change and how the city plans to sustain a fare-free bus system.

Q: How did this transformation come about?

A: The conversation probably started even before my time at DASH, and I’ve been here for a little over 4 1/2 years now. The question of the value of charging fares as compared to a fare-free service has come up quite frequently. And it really comes down to a question of how you view transit — whether you view it as a pay-as-you-go service or if you view it more as a public infrastructure, much like a road or a bridge or some other type of method to help people living their lives. And I think we’ve got local officials and DASH Board [of Directors] leadership who are coming together and recognizing that transit probably should be viewed more as infrastructure and as something that is open to all, regardless of your means.

Q: How is DASH making up the fare revenue it’s losing?

A: In the immediate term for this fiscal year, the city’s additional subsidy that they had to provide was about $1.47 million. Now, consider that DASH typically budgets for approximately $4 million or so in fares. But in the current year with the [pandemic] climate and with all the things that have been going on and reduced ridership in our projections, the gap was much smaller to fill this year. So I think in the immediate term, it was easier to figure out.

Q: What about in the long run?

A: Our projection for [fiscal year] ’23 through FY ’25 starts at $4.7 million in potential fares that are lost. So that’s our gap for being fare-free, projected all the way up until FY ’25 of $5.5 million. Now, consider that that is anticipating people returning to transit, it’s anticipating people returning to the office. As we know, the pandemic has been an ever-evolving challenge for all of us, so it’s hard to see exactly how those would shake out, but those were our projections. And those are the numbers we’re working with as we work with the state to seek funding assistance over the course of the next couple of years.

A little caveat here: The state expects over the course of a multiyear grant for [its contribution] to step down sequentially. So we have to make sure that we have a plan and ultimately a local commitment to finding a way to basically phase in and increase local contribution, which we think is going to be, quite frankly, driven by the [fare-free] effects on ridership — increases on ridership — which should translate to more people moving around the city creating economic development and greater opportunity for businesses. You can kind of piece together how it [fare-free transit] would potentially present itself as a great investment locally that would pay itself off in the longer term.

Q: What is the goal of going fare-free?

A: This is about helping the most people as possible using our service. And it obviously starts with transit-dependent people. Certainly, we recognize that a chunk of our ridership is transit-dependent. These are carless households or single-car households that may rely, with multiple family members, on transit to get them to work, to medical appointments, to the grocery store and those kinds of things. So I think, first and foremost, it’s recognizing coming out of a pandemic the crucial role that transit played in ensuring a continuity of services throughout the community.

This starts helping those who are really struggling to get around. It also serves the benefit of helping families to redirect some of the funds that they might have been using to access transportation to some of the other critical services they might be seeking. That is something that’s hard to quantify, but I think that there’s an important component there about economic recovery, noting that here we are in an environment where we’re looking to see people getting back in to work, back into the community, spending money throughout the community.

Q: How does this benefit Alexandria and the region?

A: It’s twofold: One, it’s eliminating the barrier to accessing transportation to get people where they need to go to do these things, and two, it’s putting a little bit of money back in their pockets that hopefully they can use, whether it’s toward medical bills or toward groceries or other things. Another effect, I would say, is attracting “choice riders,” as we call them. They are people who may have been using DASH to commute to work, but they have a car. They just don’t want to be stuck in traffic commuting or it’s just more convenient for them. Maybe they will take even more trips on transit when they know they don’t even have to think about paying. They can just go out.

Maybe they’ll make that choice more often, not just the choice Monday through Friday, twice a day, to go to the exact same place. Maybe they’ll make a choice to go downtown or go to Old Town or make a trip into the city and avoid the cost of parking. I think all those things coming together really paint a very solid picture as to why this is both benefiting people coming out of the pandemic who have needs that they’re struggling to meet, but also those who may be choosing to use transit, and we hope they will choose it even more as our economy rebuilds.

Q: What are you doing with the fare boxes on the buses?

A: The fare boxes will be covered up. Fare boxes are very expensive equipment. We’re going to be leaving the fare boxes on the buses for the immediate future, largely because we need them to be able to count people boarding our buses. We are implementing what are called APCs, or automated passenger counters, throughout our fleet. When that project is complete, then no longer will the driver need to count how many passengers are boarding the bus. About half of our fleet is equipped. But until we’re 100 percent, we need fare boxes to count the passengers and to collect the data.