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GRTC CEO Proposes Extending Free Bus Service Into Next Year

A bus approaching a station
A Pulse rapid transit bus approaches a station near the James River. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Using federal funding for coronavirus relief, GRTC CEO Julie Timm is proposing to make Richmond-area buses free for riders through next June. 

Timm made the proposal to GRTC’s Board of Directors on Tuesday, saying a zero-fare operation will allow them to keep social distancing guidelines in place and help low-income riders recover from a pandemic-induced recession. The transit company expects to receive $32 million from the federal CARES Act, more than enough to cover the $7 million it would cost GRTC to extend free service through June 2021.

“It will help us to protect our operators in case there is a second peak when the economy reopens, and it will also help to protect our passengers and help them extend their budgets as they are trying to recover financially,” Timm said.

According to a recent survey of GRTC riders, 54 percent have a yearly household income of $25,000 or less.

The transit company implemented fare-free service on March 18 due to a 30 percent drop in ridership. The move also helped bus drivers and riders reduce potential exposure to COVID-19 by reducing contact with ticket vending machines and allowing for rear boarding only. 

Timm’s proposal was met with some skepticism from board members who say more conversations with governmental partners are needed. GRTC received funding from the City of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties.

“I think we want to be sensitive to our partners and the potential unintended consequences that could evolve that we haven’t thought through yet,” said Gary Armstrong, the board’s vice chair and Chesterfield representative.

Timm said she has only had preliminary talks with the local governments in the region as of Tuesday’s meeting.

For now, the board will consider three budget scenarios going into effect on July 1: bringing back fares starting in July; continuing zero-fare through the winter only; or continuing zero-fare through next summer.

They are expected to debate these budget proposals at meetings in May and June.

 

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