Is free public transit feasible in Santa Clara County?
VTA bus driver Patricia Murray pauses at an intersection near the end of her route in downtown San Jose. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

At a time when VTA is struggling with long-term budget woes, service cuts and the aftermath of a mass shooting, it may seem ludicrous to imagine the agency offering free rides.

Transit advocates support the idea of fare-free transit, but say reliable service must come first. The agency would also need to figure out how to make up for the drop in revenue.

“(Free fares) can’t come at the expense of the function and stability of the overall transit network,” said Sergio Lopez, a Campbell councilmember and proponent of fare-free service. “We can make fares free, but if it’s not taking anyone anywhere, or if you have to cut lines in order to do it, then it’s not going to end up being something that’s feasible for residents.”

In 2019, VTA got close to the goal of operating without the need to charge for service, Lopez said. The transit agency only derived 7% of its funding from fares at the time.

Now Lopez says the agency must focus on restoring service to pre-pandemic levels, which involves hiring and training more workers. VTA plans to restore pre-pandemic service by February, according to a memo to the agency’s Board of Directors.

Lopez said the countries with the best public transit serve people at all income levels, and that getting people out of their cars is crucial to fighting climate change.

“That’s where we need to get to, a system that is so robust that it’s an appealing option, regardless of your income level,” Lopez said. “Every additional rider on transit, no matter where they’re coming from in terms of their income, gets us closer to the goal of being more sustainable.”

Fare-free transit services are not common in the U.S., according to Asha Weinstein Agrawal, director of the National Transportation Finance Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute.

“It’s not something that doesn’t exist in the U.S.,” Agrawal told San José Spotlight. “It does, but for the most part it’s in smaller communities, or communities that don’t have a lot of transit to start.”

Kansas City, Missouri—a city of about half a million people—enacted a free transit program last year, according to news reports. About 8% of its transit revenues came from fares. About 9% of VTA’s revenues come from fares, according to spokesperson Brandi Childress.

VTA has a budget of $509 million for fiscal year 2021.

Before the pandemic, VTA collected $35.7 million in fares in fiscal year 2019, Childress said. The biggest barrier to offering free transit service is not having another revenue source to make up for the loss in fares, she added. This forces the agency to choose how to reduce service: cut routes, frequency, service length or all three.

“In general, losing any amount of revenue in an operational budget is hard to recover elsewhere,” Childress told San José Spotlight. “Much like when we make budget-neutral service changes, the trade-offs become taking away service somewhere to enhance it elsewhere. If VTA loses $25 million in fares in (fiscal year 2022), we have to do $25 million less of something else as there is no other revenue source to replace it.”

In June, San Francisco Mayor London Breed vetoed a pilot program of free fares on the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency, which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved that same month. Breed said eliminating fares would worsen SF Muni’s deficit. She cited a survey of riders that showed 63% of respondents preferred that the agency improve its reliability and service rather than offer free fares.

“I have not seen any evidence that making Muni free increases ridership,” Breed wrote in a letter explaining her veto. “But we have plenty of evidence that having reliable, consistent services will get more people on transit.”

Local transit advocate Monica Mallon said she supports studying how offering free transit could affect ridership.

“At least have that analysis available: see what it would actually cost, see what it would do to ridership… just so everybody can have the information they need to make a decision,” Mallon said. “If the boardings go up, then they can tell the world that their ridership is going up, and that really helps build support for ballot measures.”

Agrawal said public transit juggles two objectives: providing transportation for people with no other options and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching people from cars to services such as trains and buses. Often, these objectives conflict. It takes more than free fares to get people out of their cars, she added.

“It’s great in terms of providing greater mobility for local people who are unable to drive, but you’re not necessarily getting cars off the road,” she said. “You don’t change people’s behaviors with just one policy.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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