An ongoing dearth of riders on the Arlington Transit (ART) bus service is one reason why taxpayers are likely to have to cover the vast majority of the cost for every trip taken on the bus system in the coming year, according to new data.
As part of developing the government’s fiscal 2024 budget, officials are projecting cost recovery of 12 percent for the fiscal year that begins in July. That’s up from pandemic years, when ridership fell off a cliff, but is well below pre-pandemic levels.
“Cost recovery” essentially means the percentage paid by riders of the system. Bus systems traditionally have relatively low recovery rates – often far less than 50 percent – with the remainder being subsidized by taxpayers at the local, state and federal levels.
In the county government’s 2019 fiscal year (July 2018 to June 2019), the system recouped 26.5 percent of operating revenue through the farebox. In the 2020 fiscal year, which had about eight normal months and the remaining four impacted by the first blasts of COVID, the farebox-recovery rate was 18 percent.
Revenue recovery cratered to 7 percent in fiscal 2021 before clawing back somewhat in ensuing years as the county government and regional transportation agencies began to rebuild networks that had been stripped to bare bones due to the limited number of riders. It is projected to end the current fiscal year at about 10.6 percent.
During a March 7 budget hearing with County Board members, Department of Environmental Services director Greg Emanuel said the expected revenue for the ART system – which is operated by a contractor – would grow slightly from $2.35 million in the current fiscal year to $2.49 million in the one that begins in July.
The ART system was created by the county government several decades ago, in part to help offset rising costs associated with Metrobus service in the county, and to serve nooks and crannies of the community where Metro service didn’t reach.
The best fiscal year ever for the ART system came in fiscal 2017, when more than 3.4 million passengers took trips. But that comes with an asterisk; many Arlington Metrorail stations were shut down for refurbishing during that period, sending transit-users to bus systems instead.
Arlington officials have begun a state-mandated process of developing a strategic plan for the ART system, with an online public hearing slated for March 23. For information, see the Website at https://bit.ly/41ZD3kA.