The Pulse, Richmond’s bus rapid transit line. Virginia officials are trying to lure passengers back to transit as the pandemic subsides. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
At a recent meeting of the board that oversees the Virginia Railway Express commuter train system in Northern Virginia, CEO Rich Dalton noted the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival and the transit service cuts that came with it.
More riders were starting to come back, Dalton said, but the data he presented for March showed ridership numbers were still about 80 percent below pre-pandemic levels. For the week ending March 18 in 2019, VRE’s average daily ridership was 18,658. For the same week this year, that number was 3,876.
With two lines starting in Fredericksburg and Manassas that carry lots of federal workers to D.C., system officials said they were working with HR reps at federal agencies to try to get more of their employees back on the trains.
“We know that there’s a lot of agencies right now trying to get people to stop driving because their parking lots can’t take it anymore,” Dalton said. “We want to be the first option that those benefit coordinators push to their staff.”
Board member Libby Garvey, a member of the Arlington County Board, threw out another idea to lure riders back.
“Have we considered having like a week or something where everybody comes on and they get a doughnut or some cookies?” Garvey said. “Just that kind of a warm touch. I don’t know. We might get crumbs on the train.”
As more Virginians return to semi-normal routines, public transit agencies throughout Virginia are launching new efforts to convince people buses and trains are a safe, environmentally friendly and— with gas prices high — low-cost way to get where they need to go.
But many officials acknowledge the future looks uncertain, with no one able to predict how many workplaces will ever return to pre-pandemic expectations that employees would show up to an office five days a week.
“We’re seeing more offices go back into a hybrid type work arrangement,” said Jennifer DeBruhl, acting director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. “As people start to evaluate how they’re going to adapt to that, we want them to know that the transit services they’ve relied on are still there and adapting to meet their needs.”
The state is launching a new PR campaign called “Rediscover Your Ride” to boost confidence in public transit, funded by a $247,500 COVID-19 grant from the Federal Transit Administration. In addition to the marketing component that will be carried out in coordination with local transit agencies, the initiative includes a 68-page recovery handbook on how the industry can navigate “the greatest challenges faced by transit systems in several decades.”
Ridership for Hampton Roads Transit — which operates buses, light rail and ferries — was down about 62 percent this year compared with January 2019, according to data posted on the agency’s “accountability” website.
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For Valley Metro, which serves the greater Roanoke area, ridership in February was down about 50 percent from 2019, according to ridership reports included in meeting minutes of the agency’s board.
But with the winter omicron wave receding, officials say numbers are starting to rise, even if few can predict where the new baseline will be.
Getting ridership numbers back up isn’t just important for the financial viability of transit systems, DeBruhl said, it relieves congestion and parking issues that can arise when too many people choose to drive their own vehicle.
State officials don’t regularly track statewide transit usage, and how strongly ridership numbers are bouncing back varies from region to region based on the particulars of how each transit system is designed and who uses them.
“The agencies that primarily serve commuters are slower to return,” DeBruhl said.
The Greater Richmond Transit Company has seen its local fixed-route bus ridership numbers bounce back and occasionally surpass where they were before COVID-19 hit.
“We are definitely at pre-pandemic levels,” said Julie Timm, the CEO of the Richmond-area transit agency. By serving large numbers of essential workers who still needed to get to jobs during the pandemic (an intentional feature of the system’s 2018 redesign), Timm said, GRTC didn’t see its numbers drop as dramatically as other areas did.
An infusion of outside funding, much of it tied to pandemic relief, also allowed GRTC and other agencies to adopt zero fare policies, which cut costs for low-income riders and helped avoid close-contact interactions between drivers and passengers.
As long as those funding streams from the state, the city of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University remain stable, Timm said, GRTC’s free-ride policy could remain in place for years to come.
“As long as they continue to stay committed to it and are able to fund it, we will be able to stay zero fares,” Timm said.
Some agencies that eliminated fares for the pandemic have restored them, but GRTC isn’t alone in pursuing zero fares as a long-term goal. Alexandria’s DASH bus network went fare-free in September and saw a 26 percent ridership increase the following month. In December, Charlottesville Area Transit announced it had received grant funding to stay fare-free until at least 2026.
The DPRT handbook on public transit during COVID-19 noted that 33 of the state’s 42 public transportation providers had dropped fares by March 2020. In that regard, the report says, the crisis was an “unplanned opportunity to pilot zero-fare transit.”
“Now we have real-world examples of how it has changed transportation,” said Danny Plaugher, deputy director of the Virginia Transit Association, which advocates for public transportation.
For other commuter-heavy agencies like Virginia Railway Express, Plaugher said, the future is hard to predict until the office routines of federal workers get more settled.
“I think until we understand really what the new normal is going to be, it’s very hard to plan,” Plaugher said. “It’s just kind of continuing to adjust.”
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