Bus systems across the Washington region are reexamining fares to address income inequalities and racial disparities as they try to lure riders back. But those discussions are at a crossroads, with operators and policymakers weighing whether financial benefits to riders outweigh the loss of fare revenue.

The pandemic and social justice protests have spurred the focus on lowering or eliminating fares. Some systems already have gone fare-free on a trial or permanent basis, while others are assessing their options.

Losing fare revenue, which typically covers roughly one-fifth of operational budgets, could put service at greater risk of cuts, some transportation officials say. At stake, they say, could be the frequent and reliable service that studies show riders — including those with lower incomes — prioritize over costs. The debate is gaining momentum nearly two years into a health crisis that shifted the makeup of public transportation ridership.

“The challenge for transit is to adjust service fares to meet the changing needs of the population,” said David Snyder, vice chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. “We are, as a region, beginning to grapple with this.”

In the Washington region, Arlington, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax counties are considering fare-relief programs, in addition to the District, largely driven by a renewed focus on equity and a desire to bring back ridership lost during the pandemic.

Alexandria’s DASH bus system went fare-free this fall, prompting transit organizations across the region to track the experiment. Along with free service, DASH restructured bus lines to increase frequencies and expand its service area to cover more underserved communities. Ridership has grown by about 26 percent since the revamped service launched Sept. 5.

Elsewhere in the nation, Boston is testing free service on specific routes, while Los Angeles is considering going fare-free and Chicago is proposing fare cuts.

Last year, bus systems in the Washington region temporarily suspended fare collection for months to keep passengers distanced from bus drivers because of coronavirus risks. A few systems, including Ride On in Montgomery County and OmniRide in the Prince William County area, have kept the fare holiday. Most systems also have not returned to pre-pandemic levels of operation.

Local transportation and political leaders say that while the pandemic has harmed transit, it also highlighted its critical role for “essential” workers. Many kept riding to get to jobs at grocery stores, restaurants and hospitals as workers with more flexibility stayed home. Bus ridership has fared better than rail ridership during the pandemic, in large part because of service workers.

“It became very obvious that these people who are working in jobs who are essential to us keeping our community running, rely on the service,” Montgomery County transportation director Chris Conklin said. “The perseverance of them to continue in those jobs throughout the pandemic has motivated people to take a look at this and say, ‘How can we make transportation easier?’ ”

Regional systems eye lower fares

Funding is the biggest obstacle for a jurisdiction to implementing fare relief. If they are unable to rely on money from fares, jurisdictions would need to boost their transit subsidy or search for other funding.

In Alexandria, fare revenue before the pandemic was about $4 million annually, covering about 20 percent of a $20 million operating budget. Like most systems, the city this year relied largely on federal pandemic aid, but is seeking other funding sources to make up fare losses.

The city expects to receive a $7 million Virginia grant that supports reduced or no-fare transit operations. That funding, along with a city match, would keep DASH free for four years, city officials said.

Bus fare revenue covers between 4 percent and 27 percent of the operating budgets of the region’s 12 local bus systems — an average of 16 percent — with taxpayers footing the rest of the bill. Loss of fare revenue would translate to nearly $170 million that jurisdictions would need to find from federal, state or local sources.

Cory Wallang, a D.C. resident and nurse aide who uses the District’s Metrobus and Montgomery County’s Ride On to get to her job in Bethesda, said months of free bus rides have provided a financial boost. Since Metro resumed fares in January, she occasionally walks more than a mile to the free Ride On bus, avoiding a $2 Metrobus fare.

Wallang, 58, said a free regional bus system would help residents who are struggling to make ends meet, but worried the lack of fare revenue would lead to declining service levels. She already waits up to 30 minutes for a bus — longer if traveling outside peak hours.

“How are they going to pay the driver? How are they going to pay for gas and buses?” she said. “The service is going to get worse.”

Metro’s board of directors recently floated various reduced-fare options, including a $1 fare for Metrobus and discounted fares for low-income riders.

The transit agency in September lifted a $1.50 transfer fee between rail and bus, and reduced the price of a seven-day regional bus pass by $3. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes $20 million for future transit equity initiatives, which are being developed, agency spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.

The D.C. Council is weighing a bill that would give city residents $100 a month in free transit credits. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who introduced the “Metro for D.C.” proposal, said it aims to help job-seekers and low-income families with transportation costs while seeking to boost bus service and Metro ridership.

“It’s not just about the fares,” Allen said during a recent discussion on transit equity. “Can you rely on it?”

In neighboring Montgomery, the County Council is considering reducing a $2 fare to $1 for all Ride On passengers, a proposal that comes after the county recently launched free bus rides for seniors and people with disabilities. Some council members say going fare-free on the region’s second-largest bus system is an option, while pushing to keep the pandemic-era free policy at least through June.

Arlington County is considering free service on its ART bus system for residents on public assistance, as well as an expansion of a free-fare program to 2,500 middle and high school students. Arlington Transportation Bureau Chief Lynn Rivers said the county is also studying whether to lower or eliminate fares for all riders.

Fairfax County is considering a program to subsidize fares of low-income riders by 50 percent. Nearly 60 percent of Fairfax Connector riders live in low-income households, according to the county.

In Prince George’s County, riders saw bus fares drop in January, from $1.25 to $1, on TheBus. Transportation officials say a fare restructure review is looking at options that include going fare-free.

Frequency, reliability prized over costs

Proponents of lower or no fares say such programs help the most economically vulnerable residents while helping to improve ridership.

In Montgomery County, for example, some council members pushing to go fare-free cite a recent county report that found the median household income of Ride On passengers is $35,000, well below the county average of $108,820. Two-thirds of Ride On passengers don’t own a car, according to the report.

The numbers are similar for Metrobus riders: one in four are non-English speakers and 80 percent belong to a racial minority group, according to Metro.

Conklin said a $2 fare can burden those residents, many of whom are working two jobs in the service sector. Several local bus systems follow Metro’s fare policy of $2 a ride, although D.C. Circulator and Prince George’s TheBus charge $1.

Some policymakers want to target fare reductions at low-income passengers, while others worry about a potentially arduous income verification process.

David Bragdon, of New York-based TransitCenter, which advocates for better transit options, questioned whether free transit should be the end goal for policymakers. He said doing away with fare revenue can threaten agency budgets at a time when many are looking to fill seats during the pandemic.

TransitCenter studies before the pandemic found a majority of low-income bus riders rated lower fares as less important than better service. In a summer 2018 survey, respondents cited frequency, crowding, safety and reliability above fares.

“If you ask people, including low-income people, ‘Why don’t you ride the bus?’ By far, the leading reason is it doesn’t come often enough, and it doesn’t take me where I need to go,” Bragdon said. “A bus that is free, but only runs every two hours and doesn’t run on weekends — that’s no bargain at all.”

At a recent meeting of the Washington region’s Transportation Planning Board, Metro vice president of planning Shyam Kannan said the transit agency’s surveys show similar views among riders.

“Frequency, reliability, that’s what they want,” Kannan said. “Pricing is not the second or third or fourth most important thing. It’s the 15th most important thing. So if you make it free but the bus is only running half an hour, you haven’t done anything.”

That’s why some jurisdictions are looking at Alexandria’s DASH model. The city increased service levels by 15 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels when it dropped fares two months ago.

The city’s bus overhaul was lauded by city leaders and transit advocates as a top priority to tackle environmental and equity goals. Besides eliminating the cost, officials say the fare-free system means passengers don’t have to worry about carrying a fare card or downloading an app to pay.

“You just have to jump on and ride, so it makes it just a lot easier,” said Martin Barna, DASH’s director of planning and marketing. “It reduces a huge barrier to riding.”