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Opinion/Editorial: Fare-free CAT has promise

Opinion/Editorial: Fare-free CAT has promise

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Good news for area residents:

Charlottesville Area Transit will remain fare-free for the next three years. And Jaunt, a regional transportation service, is thinking of going fare-free.

CAT Director Garland Williams told the Regional Transit Partnership last week that new federal American Rescue Plan money, added to funds left over from federal CARES legislation, will allow the service to operate without charging its riders.

Both sources trace their origins to bailout money approved in Washington to help support state and local governments during the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, the more recent of the two, 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.

With federal funds enabling the move last year due to the pandemic, CAT had eliminated fares as a way to protect its drivers from passenger contact.

Both agencies have seen ridership diminish during the pandemic. With some people working from home and others losing their jobs as a result of business slowdowns or shutdowns, fewer people needed public transportation. Those who did probably needed it badly, so the fare-free policy was welcome not only to help protect drivers but to serve passengers.

Jaunt says it recently has seen its ridership rebound, although it is still operating at a reduced level. Interim CEO Karen Davis said she wanted to put together a proposal for dropping fares, in order to reduce passengers’ threshold for entry to public transit.

“When you take that barrier away for passengers…, the risk of trying to use transit is so low,” she said. “...So I think it’s really exciting if we can make this work.”

CAT already was seeing declines in ridership; the pandemic just exacerbated the problem. The agency has been trying to stem the trend for years, but has yet to hit on an effective solution.

Fares make up a small part of CAT’s financial support — so why not just eliminate them? That would shift the concept from one in which users participate in supporting the bus system through fees to one that would be fully a public service — like free access to parks or free education.

And that would shift the funding model. Most of the money comes from state, federal and local sources; Charlottesville has budgeted $11.8 million for CAT for the coming fiscal year, and Albemarle County also pays to have buses serve county urban-ring locations.

But increases in local funding are unlikely to be forthcoming to support a fare-free model, with local governments already pinched between demands for more services and demands to keep taxes down.

Funding replacement for fares would almost certainly have to come from state and/or federal sources. However, increased ridership could help CAT pull in more federal dollars, which are distributed in part based on population and service levels.

Williams said he’s been talking with state officials about obtaining more grant money, and his department is working on a study to help determine if the fare-free plan is possible. The study could start within the month, he said.

Fare-free service certainly would be a boon for local riders.

But if the program can’t be implemented permanently, it might be difficult for CAT to reinstate fares after (by then) a four-year run of not charging passengers a penny.

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