Regional Transit Partnership discuss fare-free, lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic has affected much of how the community functions, and has drastically affected how transit agencies get people around the region. 

On October 22, 2020 the members of a working group of Albemarle and Charlottesville officials talked about lessons learned as buses have been running at reduced capacity due to the need for physical distancing. 

Take a listen to an audio version of this story!

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the Regional Transit Partnership. 

“The thought was today to have a work session for our group to discuss transit in light of the pandemic,” McKeel said. “Is our strategic plan still relevant? Do we need to articulate a new direction in some areas? What is absolutely the most important thing about transit today, which may not have been true when we were looking at our strategic plan?” 

The Regional Transportation Partnership has been meeting since October 2017 and is a forum to talk about ways to increase coordination between multiple transit agencies in our area. 

Brad Sheffield is the executive director of Jaunt, which is a regional transportation system that serves the city and surrounding counties. He said the pandemic has led to increased communications between his agency, Charlottesville Area Transit and the University Transit Service.

“Going forward there’s going to be a need for more and more communication and more positive communication about what safety measures are being taken and so forth,” Sheffield said. “We can’t just assume that something we put out today is going to be remembered two months from now.” 

But what if there are fewer potential passengers in the future? 

Albemarle Deputy Executive Trevor Henry said the county is putting together its budget for next year, and wanted to know what financial changes can be identified now. He said many companies may allow their employees to continue to work from home after the pandemic. 

“We didn’t have a work from home policy and we created one in three days whenever we forced everyone out of the office, and we’ve been able to keep county operations hit,” Henry said. He added that the county will expect to keep a virtual option open going forward. 

“We’ve upgraded all of our conference rooms and we’ve made the assumption that we’ll never have a meeting that everyone is in the room together,” Henry said. 

Sheffield said Jaunt has switched its dispatchers so they can work at home. That means they may not need to expand their administrative building. . 

“It’s really challenged the fact that we’ve been shoehorning our staff in the current facility that we have, and this has really shown that we can’t do that anymore,” Sheffield said. “We see that this is part of that future issue where we need better space planning now to just be ready for how we come out of this.”

And then there’s the cost of cleaning and disinfecting all of the buses. CAT Director Garland Williams said his agency is using money from the CARES Act to cover the high cost.

“There needs to continue to be that level of cleaning to make sure the public feels safe when riding public transportation,” Williams said. “Our cleaning bill is fairly high. We’re at half a million dollars already and growing.”    

Another topic is whether transit agencies will resume collecting fares after the pandemic. On CAT buses, passengers now enter through the side door bypassing the farebox as a safety precaution. McKeel said she wanted to know if that could be continued in the future as a way to boost ridership.  

Chip Boyles, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said he supported such a study but said the term “fare-free” can be misleading from a budgetary standpoint.

“A lot of people think fare-free and it’s not,” Boyles said. “Somebody’s paying. It just may not be the end consumer handing a dollar bill over to the driver. Somebody’s paying, but I have seen it directly experienced where there are a lot of benefits.”

During the pandemic, that means contactless transit. It also would mean not having to pay someone to account for collecting the fares, or installing expensive fareboxes. He said fare free transit usually works in college towns where the school picks up the tab. 

“Somebody writes one check instead of a million people handing over 75 cents,” Boyles said.

Williams said he believes CAT could go fare-free in the future and he is working on a pilot project.

Neal Sherman with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said his agency was in the process of developing a grant program for this purpose before the pandemic, but they want to use a different phrase.

“We are changing the terminology to zero fares,” Sherman said. 

Fares make up about ten percent of CAT’s budget, for instance. The University Transit Service is fare-free. UVA Parking and Transportation Director Becca White said the University pays about a quarter of million dollars to CAT for its employees to ride CAT buses fare-free. 

“We consider our program with CAT to be a reciprocal ridership program such that UTS provides service on Grady, Rugby Street, 14th Street, JPA, we just open the doors and anyone boards,” White said. “CAT used to run on Massie Road and Arlington Boulevard and Rugby Road and because of our coordination with our routes, CAT was able to reallocate resources to other routes and UTS became the public provider on some roads.” 

As the meeting was a work session, there were no decisions made. The TJPDC is awaiting news about whether it will get a planning grant from the DRPT to come up with a way to improve the regional vision as well as enhanced transit service in Albemarle. The Commonwealth Transportation Board did not make a decision at their meeting on Tuesday. 

Supervisor McKeel said her interest in transit leans toward finding ways to serve a growing urban population in the county. Albemarle pays for service by CAT, but the process to get new routes is a long and uncertain one. The county is working with Jaunt on potential on-demand service to augment CAT and UTS. 

“Fixed routes are not going to serve our population by themselves,” McKeel said. “We hardly have a proposal that comes to us now that doesn’t talk about the need for some sort of transit or on-demand, and we’re talking about transit stops that also offer opportunities for on-demand and looking at them as multimodal stops with bike racks, shelters, charging stations.”

The Regional Transit Partnership is next scheduled to meet in late January 2021.

Where will be in the pandemic by then? Stay tuned.

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