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Fairfax County preparing to halve bus fares for low-income riders

Changes to Virginia’s gas tax and transit fees will eventually bring savings to Fairfax County bus riders facing financial hardships.

Customized Fairfax Connector bus passes will cut fares in half for low-income riders with a new program that might begin this coming summer, county staff told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at a transportation committee meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 14).

The county plans to reduce fares for people with incomes up to 225% of the federal poverty level. That would put the eligibility cap around $29,000 for an individual or $59,625 for a family of four.

Residents of Fairfax County as well as the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church will be eligible.

The county’s transportation staff is working with the Department of Family Services and Housing and Community Development to get users of those services the discounted passes because they’ve already had their income screened. The county could later expand its outreach to others who qualify.

“I think this is going to be a great, great program once we get it piloted,” Lee District Supervisor Rodney Lusk said.

The county will receive $5.49 million in state funds to pilot the effort for three years as part of Virginia’s new Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP), which supports projects that reduce barriers for low-income travelers or improve connectivity in urban areas, such as by creating dedicated bus lanes.

The grant program was created as part of a transit funding overhaul approved by Virginia General Assembly in 2020. The legislation also raised the gas tax by 5 cents per gallon on July 1, 2020 and again on July 1, 2021.

With about 30,000 daily riders, Fairfax Connector is the largest local bus system in Northern Virginia. It already offers free rides to middle and high school students, and the county temporarily suspended fares for all riders for part of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

County staff are slated to update the board on the reduced fare effort this spring.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay asked staff to return with more information about the cost of implementing and administering the program compared to “the cost of just waiving fares, period,” noting that some neighboring localities are looking at eliminating fares.

“I support this needs-based one, given the size and complexity of ours,” McKay said. “But I do think we need to know what the administrative cost of this is and weigh that against a larger, maybe more aggressive way to provide transit as something that our residents in need can utilize.”

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