No more free bus rides? Green Mountain Transit will bring back fares unless Legislature steps in
Every local bus in Vermont has been free to ride for nearly three years. Thanks to an influx of federal pandemic funds, transit agencies have been able to stay financially afloat without charging riders. But if lawmakers don’t step in, that could soon change, at least for Green Mountain Transit, the state’s largest bus system.
Fare-free policies started in March 2020, in those frantic first weeks of the pandemic.
“Zero-fare was actually initially an infection control practice,” explained Clayton Clark, the new general manager of Green Mountain Transit, which operates buses throughout most of northwest and central Vermont. “By implementing zero-fare, riders were able to enter through the rear of the bus, which kept them distant from from the driver.”
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Getting rid of fares was a social distancing policy, intended to last a few weeks. But as the pandemic continued for months and then years, so did free buses, mostly thanks to federal funds that propped up GMT and other transit agencies. That brought some other public benefits, according to Clark: Increased ridership, better equity, and the removal of a financial barrier for those who rely on the bus.
There are also fewer disputes between drivers and riders, Clark said. And buses run a bit faster, since drivers don’t have to wait for riders to put cash or bus passes in the fare box.
Frequent GMT riders also appreciate the free service. Like 35-year-old Emily Quinn, who was waiting for the #6 bus on Shelburne Road on a recent Tuesday.
“I just got done doing laundry, and [I’m] heading back, dropping off the laundry, and then heading back downtown,” Quinn said. She said she lives at a motel in South Burlington and is on a fixed income. The bus is her only mode of transportation.
“It's definitely, definitely important to have the buses be free so people like me, and others that have limited income, can go to the library, go to the post office, check my mail, do laundry and do other life things,” she said.
“If I had to pay $1.50, I wouldn't be able to go nearly as many places.”Emily Quinn, frequent GMT rider of South Burlington
But free rides could end soon. In January, the Board of Commissioners that oversees GMT approved a budget that would bring back fares this July. So for Emily Quinn, each of her trips could cost up to $1.50, though there would be discounts for seniors, children and people with disabilities.
“If I had to pay $1.50, I wouldn't be able to go nearly as many places,” she said. “I would probably be able to check my mail maybe once a week, if that. I wouldn't be able to go to the library as often to get forms printed off and filled out, and just even going to Feeding Chittenden to eat breakfast and lunch, I wouldn't be able to do as much.”
So if it means riders like Quinn won’t get on the bus as often, why bring fares back? In short, GMT is running low on cash. A recent study on the fiscal impacts of fare-free transit, commissioned by the state Legislature, found keeping buses free will cost GMT $2 million in the next fiscal year.
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“Ultimately, the real question is, where's the $2 million going to come from to fill that budget hole?” said Stephen Falbel, a transit consultant who authored the study.
Falbel concluded that GMT could make up that money by once again charging riders a fare on routes in and around Burlington. Meanwhile, he found that keeping all other bus routes around the state fare-free for another year would cost just under $500,000. He suggested the state pick up that tab.
But bringing back fares on GMT’s so-called urban routes comes with another cost: An expected loss of 340,000 rides next year, out of the current 2 million annual rides. So, the funding gap presents GMT with a tough choice: Bring back fares and lose riders, or keep fares free and cut back on service. In January, GMT’s board passed a budget that aims to keep its current service, but bring back fares.
“We're going to need probably all of the financial resources that we can gather to continue to provide the same level of service,” said General Manager Clayton Clark.
There is one other emergency funding option for GMT: The state Legislature. Last year, lawmakers stepped in and gave the agency enough funding to keep buses free for another year. This year, the issue is still up in the air.
“If there were no implications… for our budget, we'd say, ‘Sure, everybody should have zero-fare,’ but I think we want to have a reliable and sustainable system,” said Windham Rep. Sara Coffey, a Democrat who heads the House Transportation Committee.
In the weeks since the GMT board passed its budget, the agency has come to Coffey and other legislators with something of a compromise: They’re now asking for $1 million, enough to keep bus rides free until January 2024, giving GMT enough time to prepare to collect money from riders again. They’ll need to replace out-of-date fare boxes with ones that could take new forms of payment, including from smartphones.
Whether they fund that compromise or fully subsidize fares again, Rep. Coffey said she’s optimistic that lawmakers will find some solution for GMT, but she notes, the state’s transit budget is tight.
“There's not too much money laying around on the floor,” Coffey said. “We have to be pretty strategic with how we think about this.”
In the longer term, analysts, lawmakers and other officials say the state needs to reconsider how it funds transit on a broader scale. Currently, a chunk of that funding comes from municipalities, raised through property taxes. But there are proposals to change that - by switching to an extra fee on motor vehicle registrations, or a monthly fee tacked on to residents’ utility bills.
In the short-term, legislators are faced with that $2 million question: Whether to keep Chittenden County buses free. Rider Emily Quinn, waiting for the bus on Shelburne Road in Burlington, said they should figure it out.
“There's always a way to do it,” she said. “There's always a line item in the budget that can be diminished or reduced.”
It’s an essential service, Quinn said.
“Transportation is a critical infrastructure that people rely on, just like people with jobs rely on their cars,” she said. “Fund it, because you couldn't live without your car, and we can't live without a bus.”
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