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Virginia public transit grapples with reduced ridership, zero fare

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

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By Katharine DeRosa

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

“We are serving a market of essential workers that can’t stay home; they have to use our service,” said Greater Richmond Transit Co. CEO Julie Timm during a recent presentation.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state of emergency in March of last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move prompted limits on public and private gatherings, telework policies and mandates to wear masks in public, although some restrictions have eased.

GRTC faced a “potentially catastrophic budget deficit” since eliminating fares last March in response to the pandemic and reductions in public funding starting in July of this year, according to the organization’s annual report. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation emergency funding covered the deficit, according to the report.

The transit system lost about 20% of riders when comparing March to November 2019 with the same 9-month period in 2020. Overall, fiscal year-to-date ridership on local-fixed routes decreased the least (-16%), compared to the bus-rapid transit line (-49%) and express routes (-84%), according to GRTC data. Local-fixed routes had a 7% increase from March 2020 to March 2021.

GRTC eliminated fares in March 2020 to avoid “close interactions at bus fareboxes,” Timm said in a statement at the time. CARES Act funding made the move possible. GRTC will offer free rides until the end of June.

GRTC will need an additional $5.3 million when federal funding ceases to continue operating with zero fare, Timm said. Zero fare can be supported through the third round of federal stimulus money and Department of Rail and Public Transportation funding, advertising revenue and other funding sources, Timm said.

“This is the conversation and it’s a hard conversation,” Timm said. “To fare or not to fare?”

GRTC serves a majority Black and majority female riders, according to the 2020 annual report. Commuters account for over half the trips taken on GRTC buses and almost three-quarters of commuter trips are five or more days per week. Nearly 80% of riders have a household income of less than $50,000 per year.

GRTC spends about $1.7 million to collect fares annually, according to Timm. Eliminating fares is more optimal than collecting fares, Timm said in March. She believes in zero fare operation because the bus rates act as a regressive tax, which takes a large percentage of income from low-income earners.

Free fares could lead to overcrowding on buses, opponents argue. However, Timm said that’s not a good reason to abolish the initiative.

“If we have a demand for more transit, I don’t think the answer is to put fares out to reduce the ridership,” Timm said. “I think the answer is to find additional funding sources and commitment to increase service to meet that demand.”

GRTC will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the zero fare model, according to Timm.

“We’ll have a lot of conversations post-COVID about how we consider transit, how we invest in transit and how that investment in transit lifts up our entire region, not just our riders but all of our economy for a stronger marketplace,” Timm said.

GRTC added another bus route as the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Route 111 runs in Chesterfield from John Tyler Community College to the Food Lion off Chippenham Parkway. The route surpassed ridership expectations despite being launched during the pandemic, according to the annual report.

GRTC also will receive additional funding from the newly established Central Virginia Transit Authority. The entity will provide dedicated transportation funding for Richmond and eight other localities. The authority will draw money from a regional sales and use tax, as well as a gasoline and diesel fuel tax. GRTC is projected to receive $20 million in funds from the authority in fiscal year 2021. The next fiscal year it receives $28 million and funding will reach $30 million by fiscal year 2026.

These funds cannot be used to assist in zero fare operation, Timm said.

Almost 350,000 riders boarded the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses per day on average in 2019, which includes passengers in Northern Virginia. That number dipped to 91,000 average daily boardings in 2020, according to Metro statistics.

Metro’s $4.7 billion budget will maintain service at 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a Metro press release. Federal relief funds totaling almost $723 million filled Metro’s funding gap due to low ridership.

“The impact of the pandemic on ridership and revenue forced us to consider drastic cuts that would have been necessary absent federal relief funding,” stated Metro Board Chair Paul C. Smedberg. “Thankfully, the American Rescue Plan Act has provided a lifeline for Metro to serve customers and support the region’s economic recovery.”

Hampton Roads Transit buses served 10.7 million people in 2019 and 6.2 million people in 2020. The decline has carried into 2021. Almost 1.6 million passengers took HRT transit buses in January and February 2020 and just over 815,000 have in 2021, resulting in a nearly 50% decrease. HRT spokesperson Tom Holden said he can’t explain why HRT bus services saw a higher drop off than GRTC buses.

“We had a substantial decline in boardings in all our modes of transportation just as every transit agency in the U.S. did,” Holden said.

HRT operated with a zero fare system from April 10 to July 1, 2020. Ridership had a slight uptick from April to October, aside from an August dip. Fares for all HRT transit services were budgeted for 14.2% of HRT’s revenue for Fiscal Year 2020.

“We are hopeful that with vaccinations becoming more widespread, the overall economy will begin to recover, and we’ll see rates increase,” Holden said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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CDC says the vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas with high infection rates

Federal health officials on Tuesday urged Americans in areas of the country with the highest surges in COVID-19 infections to once again wear masks when they are in public, indoor settings — even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

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By Laura Olson

The updated recommendations marked a sharp shift from the agency’s guidance in May that Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear a mask in most situations, indoors and outdoors.

The updates also included changes for schools, with federal health officials now urging everyone in K-12 schools to wear a mask indoors. That includes teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status and the level of community transmission.

The update in CDC guidance was prompted by new data indicating that although breakthrough infections among the vaccinated are rare, those individuals still may be contagious and able to spread the disease to others, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wearing a mask indoors in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission of the virus could help to reduce further outbreaks of the highly contagious delta variant, she said.

Some 39 states have infection rates that have reached “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission, according to a data tracker on the CDC website. The CDC rates Virginia, with 56.4 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days and a 5 to 8 percent positivity rate, as having a “substantial” level of community transmission. However, that varies widely by locality.

“As always, we will thoroughly review these recommendations,” said Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam.  “The governor has taken a nuanced and data-driven approach throughout this pandemic—which is why Virginia has among the nation’s lowest total COVID-19 cases and death rates.

“As he has said repeatedly, the only way to end this pandemic is for everyone to get vaccinated. The facts show vaccines are highly effective at protecting Virginians from this serious virus — over 98 percent of hospitalizations and over 99 percent of deaths have been among unvaccinated Virginians.”

The agency also tracks infection rates on the county level, and 63 percent of U.S. counties are in those two categories of concern.

“This was not a decision that was taken lightly,” Walensky said. She added that other public health and medical experts agreed with the CDC that the new information on the potential for vaccinated people to have contagious infections required the agency to take action.

President Joe Biden described the agency’s revision on recommended mask use as “another step on our journey to defeating this virus.”

“I hope all Americans who live in the areas covered by the CDC guidance will follow it,” Biden said. “I certainly will when I travel to these areas.”

The mask-use changes may not be the only changes coming as the White House attempts to respond to the spiking infections. Biden also said Tuesday that a vaccination requirement for all federal employees is under consideration.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs already has required its frontline health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

But the new recommendations on masks are expected to be met with resistance.

Areas of the country with the highest spikes in COVID-19 infections tend to be those with the lowest vaccination rates and places that were the fastest to end mask mandates for public settings.

Some have taken legal steps to prevent future mask mandates. At least nine states — Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Vermont — have enacted legislation that prohibits districts from requiring masks in schools, according to a CNN analysis.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, blasted the updated guidance in a statement Tuesday, describing it as “not grounded in reality or common sense.” Iowa’s level of community transmission is rated as “substantial” in the latest CDC map. 

“I’m concerned that this guidance will be used as a vehicle to mandate masks in states and schools across the country, something I do not support,” Reynolds said, adding that the vaccine “remains our strongest tool to combat COVID-19” and that she will continue to urge vaccinations.

Walensky sidestepped a question during Tuesday’s news briefing about the level of compliance that the CDC expects with the new recommendations, saying only that the way to drive down rising community transmission rates is to wear masks and to increase vaccination rates.

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Train Derailment Near Hollywood Cemetery Again

This derailment occurred Friday afternoon. A train also derailed in the same vicinity on June 9th.

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All photos courtesy of RFD Twitter.

Posted by RFD Twitter on July 23rd

At approximately 1:26 p.m., crews responded to an area down the North Bank Trail near Hollywood Cemetery for the report of a train derailment. Once on scene, they found multiple freight cars that had been tipped over. The cars were carrying coal.
Some of the load spilled onto the track and ground in the area, but there was no coal in the water. No injuries reported. The incident was marked under control at 1:59 p.m. and turned over to CSX.

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Suspect Sought in West Clay Street Burglary

At approximately 4:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 24, the man in the photos climbed a wall in the rear of a house, located in the 00 block of West Clay Street, broke into the residence and stole a computer and credit cards.

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Richmond Police detectives are asking for the public’s help to identify the individual in the attached photos who is a suspect in a residential burglary that occurred in the Jackson Ward neighborhood last month.

At approximately 4:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 24, the man in the photos climbed a wall in the rear of a house, located in the 00 block of West Clay Street, broke into the residence and stole a computer and credit cards. A photo of his distinctive pink and black sneakers is also attached.

 

Anyone with information about the identity of this person is asked to call Fourth Precinct Detective J. Land at (804) 646-3103 or contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.

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