Celebrating free and frequent transit

Celebrating free and frequent transit
Duke Street In Motion is backed by $87 million in grant funding and is intended to increase bus ridership and address pedestrian and bicyclist safety. (File photo)

To the editor:

Everyone – residents, families, businesses and visitors – benefits from accessible public transit.

In this spirit, the City of Alexandria is celebrating its DASH bus system, which has broken records with more than 4.5 million boardings in a single year. With the highest ridership in its 39-year history, DASH is delivering high quality service to all bus riders. Years in the making, today’s DASH is Alexandria’s response to public demands for convenience and equity.

DASH modified its routes in 2021 to be less circuitous and more direct, with the highest-frequency routes in the highest-density neighborhoods. However, DASH’s greatest achievement might be its Fare-Free Transit program, which eliminates fares at a marginal cost of less than 20%.

In December 2019, the Alexandria Transit Company Board, which oversees DASH operations, approved a complete redesign of Alexandria’s bus network – the culmination of a two-year planning and outreach effort. The plan envisions a 2030 bus network with frequent, all-day service connecting high density neighborhoods to high opportunity job centers.

Along with the network redesign and the beginning of high-frequency, all-day service on two routes, and at the direction of the Alexandria City Council, DASH eliminated fare collection in September 2021. Originally implemented to protect bus drivers from COVID-19, the fare-free program improved equity and made boarding more efficient. The winning combination of the modernized bus network and the Fare-Free program was immediately impactful. One year later, DASH ridership reached its highest monthly total since 2015.

DASH’s high-frequency, all- day routes, Lines 35 and 36A/B serve the city’s three largest communities of people living with low-income and from historically marginalized backgrounds: West Alexandria, South Van Dorn and Arlandria. In May 2022, Alexandria’s City Council provided additional funding for higher frequency service on portions of the DASH 30 line that improves access to jobs in Alexandria’s east, including in Old Town, for residents from historically marginalized backgrounds in West Alexandria and South Van Dorn. Along with DASH’s high-frequency, all-day service on Line 35 – Van Dorn/Beauregard corridor – and Lines 36A/B – Mark Center to Potomac Yard – enhanced Line 30 service has helped grow DASH ridership to its current record level.

Removing barriers to public transit is a public health strategy in Alexandria’s 2025 Community Health Improvement Plan. Riding the bus connects people and communities and breaks down growing isolation. When speaking in favor of improved bus service at a recent public hearing, Kursten Phelps explained DASH’s positive impacts:“When DASH went fare-free, it gave our family the freedom to leave our car behind more often. We love our community, and the bus is where the community is at. Instead of shushing my child in the backseat to focus on driving, we get around town now by bus, where we can talk about her day, chat with neighbors on the bus, and read books together.”

On Twitter/X, Matthew Larson (@tommybomb45) shared that, “Fare free DASH was the catalyst for my family to go from two vehicles to one. We use it daily.”

Critics who question the costs and benefits of DASH’s free fare program seem to not realize that all forms of transportation in the U.S. are subsidized. For example, the Public Interest Research Group found that gas taxes and vehicle user fees cover only about one-half of the costs of roads. Bus systems in the U.S. are a public good, with pre-pandemic subsidies of 64% on average. Here in Alexandria, DASH estimates that it could use fares to recover $5.1M of the $31.7M DASH budget, or 16%. That’s with the pre-pandemic special-fare programs for students, zero fare, and seniors, low fare, but without a low-income program. If DASH were to drop Fare-Free, restore special fares for students and seniors and add a zero-fare program for residents living with low-income, fare-box recovery would be less than 10% of the overall budget. In all cases, annual farebox revenue would be much less than the DASH-estimated $5 million cost to install new fareboxes.

Put simply, the DASH Fare-Free Transit program removes the expense of bureaucratic special-fare programs and puts the savings into the hands of riders. These dollars support critical living expenses such as housing, food and medical care. Fare-Free transit is a positive response to public demand for accessibility, equity, and inclusivity across the city. We look forward to seeing the Alexandria City Council reaffirm their commitment to both Fare-Free and to additional high-frequency, all-day service during their fall budget priority discussions. Alexandria’s experience shows that the high-quality, high-frequency service and the Fare-Free program are a winning combination worth celebrating.

-Meronne Teklu, chair, City of Alexandria Economic Opportunities Commission; Jim Durham, vice chair, DASH Advisory Committee