[7/14/21] Link Transit Free For Another Year

Posted in Local Government & Meetings, Transportation

Link Transit is offering free rides on all routes as part of a one-year program that began on July 1.

The move is situated between Link’s COVID-19 fare suspension and ongoing discussions about the future of its fare policy.

Link planned to resume fare collection in January after suspending fares in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but doing so while maintaining the safety barriers separating drivers and passengers was challenging.

Link was conducting an analysis of its fare policy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. DeRock said the Link concluded that there was confusion among certain populations about how the fare system worked.

“In many cases, some of the most low-income users ended up being the people that were paying the highest average fares,” DeRock said.

While this phenomenon is common in the transit industry, according to DeRock, he said many of the solutions used by larger cities, such as electronic fare collection, aren’t available to Link. The cost of implementing that kind of technology would be around $4-5 million, he said. Meanwhile, Link collects around $650,000 in fares a year — a small portion of its overall budget, which sits a $18 million this year. He added that resuming fares also has the potential to depress ridership, which is already down about 30% from pre-COVID levels.

Both Link and an outside consultant came to the same conclusion: The cost of collecting fares while addressing safety and disparity concerns is not currently worth the revenue it would generate.

During the next year, Link will monitor ridership, success of the free fare program and new technology solutions during as it evaluates its fare policies moving forward.

DeRock said Link staff are concerned about a number of potential problems with free fares, including public transit becoming a hang out place for vandals, those experiencing homelessness or mentally ill individuals.

Free fares also impact the paratransit services, including Dial-a-Ride. Under civil rights law, Link must make specialized services for disabled individuals free if other fares are also free. DeRock said this can dramatically increase the use, and thus cost, of specialized services. Due to the high cost of these services, which can be eight to ten times more expensive than a regular bus, fares may return more quickly if Link experiences an increased demand.

Despite over a year of fare suspension, DeRock said Link has not taken a hit financially due to a combination of a healthy local economy, COVID relief funding and the fact that fares have made up less than 6% of Link’s revenue.