The Annapolis Transportation Board urged the city Thursday to make its transit system entirely free to riders in an attempt to increase ridership, reduce car congestion and increase equity among residents.
At an Annapolis City Council work session, the resident-led advisory group presented a report on adopting a fare-free transit system that recommended doing away with fares on all transit routes, following a trend that has proliferated to more than 100 cities across the country.
“We can’t think of a faster or cheaper way to really improve transit in Annapolis,” board Chair Kurt Riegel said following the meeting. Riegel wrote an op-ed in The Capital on Jan. 9 to promote the adoption of the system.
The system would come at a critical time when parking will be at a premium in the city as Noah Hillman Garage is first demolished and rebuilt and City Dock is redeveloped over the next several years, Riegel said.
“It could grow ridership, relieve pressure caused by the rebuilding of Hillman Garage and it just seems the right time to do it. The benefits are enormous and the costs are small,” he said.
The 16-page report lays out several ways to help pay for the estimated $389,000 in revenue that would be lost annually from fare collection. The board proposed increasing the portion of city parking revenues committed to public transit, seeking additional private or public grant funds, and “preserving and enlarging” state and county government contributions.
A significant portion of the $5.62 million in annual transit revenues the city receives already come from grants, about 42%. Another 40% comes from transfers from the city’s parking and/or general fund.
Another recommendation, levying a sales tax, would require approval by the Maryland legislature. The report also suggested eliminating or reducing free parking for city employees, residents and special events, expanding paid parking, establishing transit subscriptions with major Annapolis employers and earmarking some property tax revenue for transportation.
City Council members were generally receptive to the idea of a fare-free system, though a few remained cautious about finding enough money to offset the estimated revenue loss.
“Overall, it doesn’t seem like a lot of money. But believe me, having gone through a number of these budgets, that’s a lot of money for us to find,” said Alderman Rob Savidge, D-Ward 7. “And unless we want to cut something, we’ve got to find a funding source and that’s going to take time.”
Acting Transportation Director Kwaku Agyemang-Duah said he was not opposed to a fare-free system but adopting one has never been considered during his time with the department because of the financial constraints that regularly plague it.
“Personally, I am not opposed to fare-free; it helps, especially those who can’t afford to ride,” said Agyemang-Duah, who has been with the department since 2009. “But given the financial situation of the department and reliance on grants and city funds, we see fare revenue as helpful to supplement the grants. We think [fare-free] is a good idea, but where is the extra revenue?”
The transit system is often plagued by empty buses and lower ridership, which should be addressed before a fare-free system is adopted, Savidge said.
“I would hate to further subsidize an inefficient system that is perpetuating and spewing out even more pollution by being inefficient, especially as we talk about our climate goals,” he said. “So I think we need to look at that a little bit more before we jump into this.”
Alderman DaJuan Gay, a Democrat from Ward 6, said he fully supported the proposal and the benefits it could deliver to lower-income residents. He did hesitate about placing any additional financial burden on taxpayers.
The board projected a fare-free system would increase ridership by about 25%. That’s a conservative estimate when compared to other jurisdictions, some of which saw ridership increase as much as 70%, said John Purnell, an at-large board member.
“We actually think this number could be 50% or 75% with good marketing and good adoption,” Purnell said.
With that increased ridership, employers could reach a broader pool of prospective workers, some of whom might not have access to a car or couldn’t previously afford a fare. A free bus could also help seniors who lack transportation, or who cannot drive, be more mobile.
The city currently charges anywhere from $1 to $4 for individual fares with weekly to annual passes ranging from $20 to $500.
The board identified several cities that have adopted a fare-free model, including Park City, Utah, a city of about 8,000, which has done so since 1975, and other cities in Montana, Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Missouri.
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In Alexandria, Virginia, ridership rose 27% after the city went fare-free in September 2021, said Elizabeth Dolezal, the board’s vice chair and Ward 1 representative.
In interviews with other cities, “we found out that actually, the increase in the ridership is across the board. It isn’t just these certain demographics,” Dolezal said.
Annapolis does offer some free transit services such as the Circulator. The state employee shuttle, funded by the state of Maryland, is also free.
Anne Arundel County suspended fares for its bus service in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, said Sam Snead, director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Transportation.
While the county’s paratransit service has always been free, Snead’s office is currently considering whether to permanently adopt a fare-free system in the future and how the county would make up the fare revenue, which accounts for less than 10% of the county’s transit revenues.
The next step for the Annapolis Transportation Board is to work on ways to improve the city and county systems, which overlap in places.
“One of the things that needs to be done is better integration of the city and county systems to make it more of a regional [system],” Riegel said, “but that is a discussion that needs to happen but has not happened yet.”