WRTA board ponders keeping free fare practice
YOUNGSTOWN — WRTA’s transit services could continue offering all of its rides for free, permanently.
Public meetings for the proposal took place Tuesday. Comments on the subject are being accrued until the Western Reserve Transit Authority’s meeting at the end of October. Contact information is available at www.wrta online.com.
Rides on the system are free through the end of the year as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the WRTA board will vote on making the policy permanent, starting in January.
“We first implemented free fares last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dean Harris, executive director, when the free fare policy was extended through 2021. “While that situation has improved in recent months, the Valley is still recovering from its effects in many ways. We want to continue to make it easy for our riders to get to and from their jobs, to medical appointments, and to the many retail areas we serve in Mahoning County and the city of Warren.”
WRTA offers a fixed-route bus system that serves Youngstown and the surrounding suburbs, the express service between Youngstown and Warren and an express service to North Jackson and Lordstown. The service usually costs $1.25 for an adult, $0.75 cents for students and $0.60 for the reduced fare.
WRTA’s door-to-door all-access service for people with disabilities and adults 65 and older is available within three-fourths of a mile from a fixed route service area. It usually costs $2.
And the countywide, door-to-door service is open to the public outside of the fixed route service area in Trumbull and Mahoning counties. The service is $3.50 for adults, and $2.50 for people with disabilities and people over 65.
All of the services will be free to ride if the proposal is approved, and passes will be eliminated.
One of the reasons Harris said he would like to eliminate the fare structure is because it costs money to collect the funds. The system spends money to haul and collect the fares and pays fees when riders use apps to buy fares. The fare boxes are expensive to repair and to purchase, he said.
The fares, before expenses are subtracted, amount to about 4 percent of the system’s budget, Harris said. But, after the expenses to collect the fees are considered, the amount left makes up about 2 percent of the budget, Harris said.
Plus, the system will have faster boarding times, which will increase the “on-time performance” of the system.
Harris said the move is likely to increase ridership figures, and when ridership numbers increase, federal funding is typically increased.
The increase in federal funding wouldn’t make up for the dollars lost, at least not right away, Harris said, but the budget can spare the funds. A better service for the residents is worth losing the funding, Harris said.
One of the biggest reasons to go fare-free, permanently, is to increase the ability of potential riders to access the system, Harris said. Many riders live on low incomes, so recurring transit expenses can be a real burden, he said.
Eliminating fares would make the system easier to navigate for riders and attract riders who previously couldn’t afford to pay the fares to ride regularly, Harris said.