Virginia Railway Express could be going fare-free this fall.
As part of a proposed initiative presented to VRE’s Operations Board Friday morning, all VRE rides would be free for the month of September. Then, for the month of October, rides from Zone 3 to Zone 1 and vice versa – from Backlick Road on the Manassas Line and Franconia-Springfield on the Fredericksburg Line up to Union Station – would be free.
“This concept came to basically promote VRE service. We’re not recommending, at this point anyway, anything permanent,” Dalton said at Friday’s Operations Board meeting.
According to Dalton, the idea is to both thank existing passengers and try to draw new riders at a time when offices traditionally fill back up after August vacations. Starting in September, many federal agencies are also expected to transition to more regular in-person work schedules several days a week.
The promotion would also coincide with significant disruptions to Metrorail’s Blue and Yellow Lines in Virginia. Starting Sept. 10, there will be no rail service on either line south of Ronald Reagan Airport until late October. At the same time and extending into 2023, Yellow Line service south of L’Enfant Plaza will still be disrupted as Metro conducts major rehab work on the Potomac River bridge and tunnel south of L’Enfant Plaza. While that’s ongoing, VRE could serve as an alternative for some commuters into L’Enfant or Union Station.
“September, traditionally, is a high-ridership month for us. It looks like it’s shaping up to be a high-ridership month again,” Dalton said. “It also allows us to thank our passengers for sticking with us and gives an opportunity for folks that are making choices out there, to come experience VRE and hopefully make what we feel is the high-value choice and start using the VRE as their commuting option.”
Ridership on the system has been steadily climbing out of its pandemic-era hole, with recent months bringing the highest network ridership since the onset of the pandemic. Still, ridership and fare revenue remain below half of what they were prior to the pandemic.
Dalton said that about 80% of lost revenue for the October portion of the program could be covered by Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation through a program meant to mitigate the Blue and Yellow Line disruptions. Depending on total ridership in September, Dalton said the worst-case scenario is that the system would forego $2.1 million in fare revenue, which would ultimately be backstopped by the federal pandemic relief money that’s already been distributed to VRE.
Agency leadership made it clear that the system is not entertaining the idea of going fare-free permanently, as some transit operators around the country – including Alexandria’s DASH network – have done. But if it’s successful, the agency could bring it back in 2023 as a recurring promotion.
“There are a lot of transit agencies looking at moving to a free or reduced-fare model long-term or permanently, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is giving people an option during the upcoming shutdown and taking advantage of this opportunity to attract new riders and promote VRE. Because we know when people try VRE, they like it,” said Fairfax County Supervisor and VRE Vice Chair James Walkinshaw. “I think there’s a possibility that if this is successful and we do attract a significant number of new riders that it’s something we could look at actually doing annually.”
The proposal will go for final approval from the Operations Board in July.