Alexandria’s DASH buses might be free soon if Mayor Justin M. Wilson’s proposal to rethink the popular transit service comes to fruition.
Wilson outlined a long-term vision to restructure the Virginia city’s buses in his April newsletter, including an upcoming overhaul of the DASH system’s route structure to provide more frequent transit for low-income, minority and senior residents.
Billed as a re-imagining of the DASH network, those route changes were approved by the Alexandria Transit Company board in late 2019 and will take effect this September.
Wilson said he sees that as an opportunity to make another significant change: An end to ridership fees, a move he says will help boost low ridership brought on by the pandemic. He said a consultant-led study of DASH and WMATA fare options in the city found such a move would increase annual DASH ridership by over 23%.
“To coincide with the implementation of this new route structure, I will be proposing that we use this opportunity to make DASH free for all riders,” Wilson said. “Free transit will expand ridership by an estimated 23%, bring riders back to transit following the pandemic, help achieve the City’s environmental goals and disproportionately benefit our lower-income residents.”
Getting rid of fares would present new budget challenges for the service. In a budget question, city staff proposed raising the city’s fiscal year 2022 subsidy contribution to keep DASH afloat without fare collection.
DASH passenger revenue for fiscal year 2022 is budgeted at $2,032,000, so the city’s contribution would need to rise by that amount to fully compensate for the loss of fares. Wilson noted the fiscal impact would be relatively low at first due to reduced ridership during the pandemic, but would rise in future fiscal years as riders return and the city seeks more enhancements.
Alternatives to full fare elimination proposed by city staff include free or reduced fares for low-income riders, and limiting free ridership to off-peak hours.
“The City Council will ultimately determine the future of this proposal as we work to finalize our budget this month,” Wilson said. “This is an important step forward as we create a transit system that serves more of our community with more efficient service.”