Charlottesville Area Transit is planning not to charge for rides during the next three years, Director Garland Williams told the area’s Regional Transit Partnership on Thursday.
“That’s a big thing for the community,” Williams said. “For CAT, it’s the CARES money and the American Rescue Plan money that’s going to allow us to continue to go fare free, which is huge.”
CAT has been operating fare-free throughout the pandemic as a way to limit contact between drivers and passengers. Area transit provider Jaunt also is exploring a plan to not charge fares.
Williams said the change is part of both agencies’ fiscal year 2022 budgets and that he’s working with state officials on other grants to support a fare-free model in future fiscal years.
Williams added that his department is working on a study to see whether it’s feasible for CAT to go fare-free permanently. That study could start within the next month.
If additional state funds become available, Williams said the goal is that the increased ridership on CAT buses “will help us to close that funding gap on the back end after a five-year model.”
Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel, who chairs the RTP, said the board had discussed fare-free models before, recognizing that someone is paying.
“Someone is paying,” Williams said. “So in this case, it would definitely be the federal government.”
The $1.9 million American Rescue Plan that was passed earlier this month included $5.3 million for transit in and around Charlottesville, according to a news release from U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine.
Williams said that money and the remaining CARES stimulus money will support free fares for three years.
CAT’s proposed operating budget for the coming fiscal year is $11.8 million, according to city documents, and about $2.5 million comes from the city. Albemarle County also contributes to the agency based on a funding formula. Fares make up a small part of CAT’s revenues.
Boosting ridership could lead to more federal and state money for area transit providers. CAT currently is working on a plan to adjust routes with the goal of increasing the number of passengers on buses.
Jaunt interim CEO Karen Davis said at Thursday’s meeting that she’s also looking into going fare-free and wanted to put together a proposal for the RTP, as well the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
“I do think that going fare-free in this next year will really enable us to get our ridership back up and running,” Davis said.
Both transit agencies have seen drops in ridership during the pandemic and have reduced their services.
Davis said Jaunt’s ridership is starting to tick back up.
“We’re putting more drivers out on the road,” she said. “More of them are able to have a full schedule, although we are at reduced capacity.”
Davis said the price of a fare can be a barrier for some people, as can figuring out the mechanism for paying.
“When you take that barrier away for passengers and everyone, the risk of trying to use transit is so low,” Davis said. “… So I think it’s really exciting if we can make this work.”