Ridership drops could mean less funding for Virginia transit agencies
Statewide fare revenues have declined by 57% from pre-pandemic levels, mostly due to lost ridership
A Blacksburg Transit bus rolls through downtown Blacksburg. (Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)
A handful of Virginia transit agencies are projected to see a drop-off in state funding support following back-to-back years of federal and state relief due to the pandemic.
Virginia Railway Express, RADAR in Roanoke, the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company and transit services in Loudoun County are some of the systems expected to be impacted by the drop in funding largely due to significant reductions in ridership and service, according to state officials.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation uses several performance factors including ridership to determine the budget allocations for dozens of transit agencies.
But ridership declined during the pandemic because more people were working from home instead of commuting to offices. Now, transit agencies are worried their budgets will be reduced as ridership looks to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
Virginia Railway Express, for example, could see its state operating funding drop 59% in fiscal year 2024 compared to 2021 levels.
“Everything that we have presented is based on a series of assumptions … and really, we’re not in a place right now, to be able to make recommendations that are specific to fiscal  funding,” said Jennifer DeBruhl, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, at a July 29 Transit Service Delivery Advisory Committee meeting.
Fare revenues have declined by 57% from pre-pandemic levels mostly due to lost ridership, according to a March 11 presentation by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
Additionally, Department of Rail and Public Transportation reports show that ridership decreased by 53% statewide during the pandemic. Ridership declines were not uniform across all agencies — while Virginia Railway Express ridership fell 92% between fiscal years 2019 and 2021, Richmond’s GRTC ridership fell only 13%.TSDAC Capital And Operating Assistance: Statewide Ridership
Staff said they will analyze data including ridership information before making any recommendations on the allocation formula to the Transit Service Delivery Advisory Committee in the spring.
DeBruhl said it’s “premature” to make any decisions based on impacts to single agencies until staff have the data from all 39 transit agencies, including JAUNT, Fredericksburg Regional Transit, Charlottesville Area Transit and the Greater Richmond Transit Company.
DRPT has nearly tripled how much it allocates to transit systems since fiscal year 2019 largely due to federal and state relief.
The agency expects to allocate $115 million to transit systems around the state in fiscal year 2024 despite projections that at least four of those systems will see their budgets cut.
Joseph Swartz, chief of staff at VRE, said the only “logical way” to allocate next year’s operating assistance funding is to use pre-pandemic ridership data.
“Given the significantly higher COVID cases in FY22, and the impact that had on public transportation ridership, why would the commonwealth choose to use data from that year as the basis for allocating state operating assistance when it recognized data for the previous two years were tainted by this catastrophic public health emergency?” Swartz wrote in a letter to the committee chair.
Penny Newquist, assistant director of transportation services for Loudoun County, said the situation is “unfortunate” because any potential cuts will hit Loudoun County at a time when the locality is expanding its service for future Metrorail as well as trying to provide equitable service countywide.
Danny Plaugher, executive director of the group Virginians for High-Speed Rail, said the coalition is concerned about the perception of drastically reducing support for VRE as the commonwealth “aggressively” pursues federal grants to fund portions of the Long Bridge that connects Virginia to Washington D.C. and improve reliability and increase rail service.
Charlie Grimes, chair of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, said it’s important to have steady, reliable funding for such services as VRE.
“If we are funding the Virginia Railway Express in peaks and valleys, then we’re going to sabotage our efforts to get developers to commit to transit oriented development,” he said.
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