The price of the Alexandria bus network jeopardizes the future of free transport

City staff said the changes to the DASH bus network over the past year have been a monumental successbut with a high cost likely to increase over time.

Over the past two years, Alexandria’s DASH bus system has undergone a series of dramatic changes, going from a complete overhaul from the routing system to changes to buggies and how buses are boarded. But to one City Council Retreat last week, city staff made it clear that the current balance of costs and revenues would pose short-term challenges.

“On the capital side, with what we have set aside for the replacement of buses, the cost of maintaining them in good condition and electrifying [the bus fleet]we are struggling to find the funds to do all this work,” said Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transport and Environmental Services (T&ES).

Lambert said it’s important to keep that cost increase in mind as the city heads into budget season this spring.

“On the DASH side, we’re doing fantastic things in transit, but the challenge for us is that operating what I would consider the best transit system is difficult and expensive,” Lambert said. “Operational costs are high and we have to make sure we go in with our eyes wide open.”

Lambert said that at the current rate, in just a few years, the DASH grant will grow from the current $23.6 million to $45 million per year.

City Council member John Chapman said the discussion raised red flags about the future of the bus system and addressed whether or not free will remain a permanent state for the bus system.

“To me: saying that transit investments need to be put on a sustainable path and not showcasing what that path is is a big red flag for me,” Chapman said. “To say ‘hey, we don’t have that money and we don’t think that’s going to happen’, so how do we plan to cut back or find other opportunities to put ourselves on a sustainable path?”

Chapman said those discussions about getting DASH on a more sustainable path will need to happen sooner rather than later.

“I want to be helpful, but I want to hear solutions for now rather than for the future, because we’re going to have budget decisions to make in the spring,” Chapman said. “If we’re going to do free: how do we make that sustainable or is it a program we do for a few years and then find a way not to?”

Staff said DASH was collecting about $4 million in fares before the free program was implemented — a sizable amount, but still insufficient to cover DASH’s expenses.

“When we get to budget season, I want to have these tough conversations instead of saying ‘we’re going to have a 14% increase on public transit. [costs]’ And then keep moving forward,” Chapman said. “We need to be able to go back to residents and tax-paying businesses and say ‘we understand this is going to affect your standard of living coming out of a pandemic and into a possible recession, and we’re always doing the best we can with our funding who we can.'”

Lambert said DASH and Metro recovery numbers show buses are recovering ridership faster from the pandemic than Metro, saying the numbers underscore that buses are the real “movers” in Alexandria and have made a much of the heavy work for public transport during the pandemic.

Mayor Justin Wilson said it may be possible to expand DASH operations while using city funding more efficiently by integrating aspects of the city’s school bus network into DASH. Wilson said the city could reach a place where DASH buses replace middle and high school bus services for Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS).

“It’s an opportunity,” Wilson said. “Anything we can do to use the capacity we’ve already invested in more efficiently is a good thing. The opportunity to partner with CSPA is one such opportunity, particularly at the middle and high school levels.

Wilson said the future of public transportation may involve replacing school buses for high school and college students with DASH bus lines.

“I want to be explicit: it’s not just ‘hey, we can complement what they’re doing’, it’s potentially about finding a way to get rid of the ACPS transport for the mids and highs and come up with a scenario where the DASH route network can do that,” Wilson said.

DASH’s financial forecast is part of a looming challenge for the city – a bloated budget in the face of stagnant growth in a potential “recession bowl of pasta.” According to Arthur Wicks, budget manager for the capital improvement program:

We have embarked on a very ambitious capital program over the past two years…the big takeaway is this: the expense of having a CIP of the size we have is going to exceed what revenue growth can absorb. Our capital programs have become larger and more complex than we can execute. We have come to you over the last years of retreats and told you that a big increase in CIP expenses is coming and we are finding ways to reduce it and make it bearable. We’ve kind of exhausted our bag of tricks on this.

Eleanor C. William