BURLINGTON — Buoyed by millions of state and federal dollars, Vermont’s largest public transit operator has waived fares on its buses for another year while avoiding major service cuts.
In a reversal from its initial plans, the Green Mountain Transit Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to maintain free service on nearly all of its routes through fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1, 2022, and runs through June 2023."
That move — along with a vote last month to not enact previously proposed service cuts — was made possible by a $1.2 million add-on to the state transportation budget. The Legislature recently passed that budget, and Gov. Phil Scott is expected to sign it.
With the state’s $1.2 million, Green Mountain Transit can draw down an additional $1.2 million in federal money. That will allow it to restore full service on two of its Chittenden County routes, and partial service for a commuter bus between Burlington and Montpelier, while remaining fare-free, said executive director Jon Moore."
But while the Legislature supplied enough cash for Green Mountain Transit to remain fare-free for now, Tuesday’s decision is projected to leave the agency with a significant deficit in fiscal year 2024 — one reason why Moore and some commissioners want the state to subsidize the transit provider.
“We’ll be facing some (revenue) shortages that we’ll need to work through, for sure,” Moore said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Had it reinstated fares, Green Mountain Transit estimated that it could have made $167,000 just from commuter routes (shuttles that travel from Burlington to destinations outside Chittenden County, such as Montpelier or St. Albans). That sum pales in comparison to pre-pandemic revenues but would help whittle down the agency’s deficit in fiscal 2024 by more than $80,000, according to a memo shared with commissioners.
But any revenue the agency earned from reinstating fares would come at a cost. The transit provider’s fare collection machines have been in hibernation since March 2020, and bringing those back online would create another task for the agency’s mechanics, who are already swamped with work because of a staffing crunch, Moore said.
In response to a question from commissioner Matt Cota, who is a South Burlington city councilor, Moore said the difficulty with reinstating fares is only temporary.
“It’s just a pure staffing limitation now,” Moore said. “I think this time next year, if we need to go back to charging fares, we’ll be certainly in a position to do so.”
While the board’s decision to stay fare-free was unanimous, one commissioner spoke against that move during a discussion before the vote.
“I still have concerns passing up fare money. I just believe that we should try to salvage some of that,” said John Sharrow, the board representative from Milton. “Pre-Covid, we were in trouble. (Fiscal year) ’23, we’re borderline. (Fiscal year) ’24, we’re not going to win.”
Advocates of fare-free transit say it has the potential to attract “choice” riders — people who have the means to drive themselves somewhere, but for convenience or cost-saving reasons choose to take the bus. And getting more people out of cars and onto public transit aligns with the state’s goals to reduce carbon emissions.
“At least for the next year, probably beyond, having fare-free for the commuter routes will get many more people out of their cars, which leads to really huge greenhouse gas reductions,” said Marcie Gallagher, a commissioner from Burlington.
But after two years of fare-free service, Green Mountain Transit ridership has not rebounded to its pre-pandemic levels, according to agency data. If that trend continues into fiscal year 2023, some state legislators have said they’d be hard-pressed to keep funding the program.
“It'll be a hard argument to make to continue to fund fare-free if it's not translating to people actually taking the bus,” said Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden — a member of the Senate Committee on Transportation — in an interview last week.
Even if the transit agency picks up more riders by waiving fares, the agency still faces daunting financial headwinds. The organization is paying far more for fuel than it expected because of inflation and the war in Ukraine.
“The fuel prices are becoming crippling,” Moore said on Tuesday. “There does not seem to be any short-term relief in terms of fuel prices.”
Green Mountain Transit is working on an agreement that would allow it to lock in fuel prices one month at a time, Moore said. Even so, with current fuel costs of $5.70 per gallon, the agency expects to shell out far more than the $2.75 per gallon it budgeted for.
Part of Green Mountain Transit’s budget woes stems from a lack of stable funding. The agency receives revenue from only a portion of the municipalities it serves, and isn’t guaranteed support from large companies whose employees ride the bus.
To ease its revenue shortfalls, Green Mountain Transit has asked the state to consider subsidizing the agency on a permanent basis. But despite the backing of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, some legislators oppose the idea, arguing that it would be unjust to charge state taxpayers for a regional transit system.
By allocating the $1.2 million from this year’s state transportation budget, though, state taxpayers are already underwriting the agency’s fare-free service — something that could make a statewide funding plan more palatable to legislators when they reconvene next year.
To position itself for statewide funding — and healthy finances in fiscal year 2024 — the agency should start preparing now, said Chapin Spencer, a commissioner and Burlington’s director of public works.
“This has got to be a major lift for us now to be ready for the upcoming biennium,” Spencer said, “because the storm clouds are brewing for ’24.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented how service would be affected on the 86 commuter bus from Burlington to Montpelier. While Green Mountain Transit is restoring some service on that route, it will not run as frequently as it did before the agency made service cuts in March.
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