Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
VIA Metropolitan Transit will allow passengers to ride free of charge beginning Saturday on all routes through at least 1 a.m. on April 1.
The move to stop accepting fares also applies to VIA’s service for disabled riders, VIAtrans, and its on-demand service. The transit agency will reevaluate whether to extend fare-free service after April 1.
With the economic effects of coronavirus-related business shutdown becoming an issue, VIA’s top official said the decision was designed to help those who depend solely on public transportation.
“We realize that public transit is a necessity for many in our community every day and perhaps especially during a crisis, including those whose work is essential during emergencies, or who may rely on transit as their only means of travel to workplaces, meal distribution sites, critical service centers, or other necessary trips,” VIA President and CEO Arndt stated Friday.
Arndt said the move attempts to give riders and bus operators a safe environment and practice social distancing to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. Going fare-free allows less crowding because people no longer have to line up to pay for a ride.
The move also helps alleviate some financial burden on riders who need to use VIA, said Rachel Benavidez, VIA’s director of communications.
“We know it’s not just the people trying to get to work,” Benavidez said. “Maybe people are trying to get to a food distribution center, or their kids’ school because they’re giving out lunches there. There are the people who always needed the service, and the people who need it now because of what’s happening.”
Benavidez estimated that VIA saw a 25 percent drop in ridership in the past week. In a typical month, VIA collects $1.8 million in fare revenue. If ridership remains down for a full month at that rate, then VIA will lose approximately $450,000 in that period, she said.
VIA gets only about 8 percent to 10 percent of its revenue from fares; 75 percent comes from sales tax revenue. Arndt said Thursday that although VIA has a rainy-day fund that theoretically could keep the system fully running for two months, the organization would have to strategize how to use it.
VIA receives a half-cent of sales tax revenue, a sticking point for the agency as other major metropolitan cities in Texas give a full cent to their transit agencies. The City of San Antonio had planned to bolster VIA’s funding by asking voters to reallocate a one-eighth-cent in sales tax from the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program to fund mass transit.
Arndt said Thursday that though VIA has a rainy-day fund that theoretically could keep the system fully running for two months, the organization would have to strategize how to use it.
Houston’s bus transit system also decided to waive fares starting Monday, according to the Houston Chronicle.