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Future of Richmond's fare-free bus transit up in the air

bus station
A GRTC Pulse bus pulls up to a station. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Bus riders may have to pay fares again if Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the Greater Richmond Transit Company don’t resolve a budget dispute this spring.

Stoney pledged in February, “As long as I’m your mayor, riding the bus will be free.” But when he proposed his city budget in March, the mayor did not include a $1 million appropriation to help fund the zero-fare program for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Stoney says GRTC already has enough money to keep zero-fare alive. GRTC officials say it would be imprudent to spend its cash reserves on the program and warn that a fragile chain of other contributors to zero-fare could break without the city’s allocation.

GRTC started the zero-fare program at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 with the goals of minimizing rider contact with bus drivers and helping Richmonders who had lost jobs or work hours. A GRTC survey a year earlier found that 54% of its riders earned less than $25,000 a year and many were dependent on buses.

GRTC gets most of its $63 million in revenue from federal, state and local government grants. The fares in 2019 netted $5.3 million. GRTC has made up the loss and funded the zero-fare program through COVID relief funds from the federal and state governments. Those were one-time grants, however, and GRTC is looking for permanent funding sources to keep zero-fare alive.

GRTC officials say they need to raise $6.8 million annually for the next three budget years to keep zero-fare alive until mid-2025.

For the first year, it has received a $4.5 million commitment from the state, $1.3 million from Virginia Commonwealth University and was counting on $1 million from the city.

During the next two years, Virginia would reduce its grant to $2.5 million and then $1 million with the goal of weaning GRTC from state support of zero-fare. GRTC would seek other public and private support to permanently solidify the program. That could mean that Richmond’s share would increase.

Stoney rejects the notion that his budget neglects zero-fare. Although his plan doesn’t include a specific appropriation for the program, Stoney did recommend $8.6 million in overall city funding for GRTC, a 7.5% increase from last year.

Stoney says the increase should allow zero-fare to continue for another year. But Julie Timm, executive director of GRTC, notes that the city is required to make the $605,000 increase under a 2020 state law that set up a Central Virginia transportation authority with taxing power.

The mayor also says GRTC has ample cash to extend the program for a year without Richmond’s help. Lincoln Saunders, the city’s chief administrative officer, says GRTC has a $15 million allocated reserve of federal COVID grants and allotments from the regional transportation authority.

Timms says the reserves are “one-time” dollars that should be spent on “one-time” needs and would not solve GRTC’s need to find permanent funding sources for zero-fare.

City councilmember Andreas Addison says he’s optimistic that negotiations between Stoney and GRTC will produce a compromise that will support the program for another year. “Everyone wants zero-fare to continue,” he said.

Timms says the Richmond community - including the city government, universities and local businesses - will decide through its funding decisions “if zero-fare is a priority.”