Fairfax Connector will soon be half-price for low-income riders, but free fares tabled

A Fairfax Connector bus leaves the Dunn Loring Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax County is poised to halve Fairfax Connector fares for low-income riders, beginning in February, through a pilot program.

The Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP) is a state grant initiative that aims to increase transit ridership. Reduced fares would only apply to individuals whose annual income is at or below 225% of the federal poverty level by household size. That would put the eligibility cap around $29,000 for an individual or $59,625 for a family of four.

The state awarded the county roughly $5.5 million for a three-year pilot program, which includes a county share of $4.2 million.

But at a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee meeting last week, staff and board members concurred that permanently cutting fares for the bus system was not a financially prudent decision and could impact quality of service.

Instead, staff recommended continuing the county’s existing free fare programs, including free student bus passes and reduced fares for seniors and passengers with disabilities. Other programs include free transfers to and from WMATA bus and rail service and free rides for children under 4.

Staff also recommended expanding free fare to children between ages 5 and 11 with a paying adult.

Board Chairman Jeff McKay said that he supported the recommendation.

“I do think if we were to go full fare free, I am worried out about our capacity issues to be able to accommodate and degradation of service that may come as a result of that,” he said.

However, he said he was concerned that only up to two children could be eligible for free fares when traveling with a parent or guardian, asking the county to examine removing that cap.

Fairfax County Director of Transportation Tom Biesadny said his department would gladly look into the issue — which has remain untouched since the service began.

Bus fare reductions and eliminations have gained momentum in the D.C. region, as local leaders look to encourage the use of transit after ridership tumbled due to the pandemic. D.C. will waive Metrobus fares starting July 1, and Alexandria’s DASH system has been fare-free since fall 2021, though the operating costs may not be sustainable long-term.

John Zarbo of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation noted that while free fares would provide equitable access, increase ridership and cut fare collection cost, the possible repercussions were more severe.

Consequences include the loss of roughly $9 million in yearly ridership revenue, an increase in non-destination riders that could lead to security issues, and possible Title VI civil rights concerns on the impact of free fares to non-economically disadvantaged riders.

Staff also noted that the county would lose data specific to riders or fare categories because of the lack of a fare box, and the program could result in an inequitable benefit to county riders with only Metrobus options.

Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said she hopes the county will continue to find ways to invest in the program.

“We’re building lifelong riders,” she said.

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