Episode 5: A Talk with Joshua Baker & Martin Barna from DASH
In this episode, we talk to Joshua Baker, Chief Executive Officer, and Martin Barna, Director of Planning & Marketing at DASH (Alexandria, Virginia). Josh and Martin share how their journey in transit began, and talk about DASH’s fare-free system, and its remarkable success!
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Today, we have a few folks from Alexandria’s system DASH in Virginia. We have Josh Baker, CEO, and Martin Barna, Director of Planning and Marketing. Gentlemen, thank you both for being on the show! I’m super excited to have you on the podcast and one of the many reasons is that DASH has been fare-free for a bit. It’s been a really hot topic in the industry. A lot of people want to understand how it is working, what it looks like after it’s been running for a while, and the hurdles that you face. But before we get into that, we’d love to hear a quick story on how you both got into transit. People are always curious about that!
Joshua Backer: I probably share a similar story with a lot of people. I fell into it and that was when I was in college. I’ve been in the industry now for over 23 years. I started out as a bus operator and did it as a part-time job – I really enjoyed it. In college, I had to figure my way out after a couple of years of floundering around and realized: “Why don’t I apply my interest in transit as a career and figure out how to be more involved?” So I’ve spent a lot of time learning all the different ins and outs of transit. I’ve been General Manager of three different systems and also was involved in my first system at Virginia Tech Blacksburg Transit. The variety of roles ranged from bus operator to supervisor, even a mechanic for a few minutes. I tried to get a little taste of everything and I really enjoy the industry. So that’s how I’ve ended up where I am today.
MM: Very cool! Started even all the way back in college – we’ve got an industry vet. Very nice! Well, thanks, Josh. Martin, what about you? What’s your story? How did you get into transit?
Martin Barna: Similar but a little bit different route. I grew up being just fascinated by cities. I grew up in the DC area, so I was just riding the Orange line in DC. I guess you’d call it kind of the SimCity generation or just really fascinated by all that is involved in city creation and development of a vibrant city that is a desirable place for people to live. I studied urban planning in college, naturally. And then as I get to the graduate level, I discovered a transportation class that really started to get me thinking. So eventually I made my way to VTA in San Jose, California. I worked as a service planner there and I really found my passion. I think transit kind of finds you. It’s a certain type of person that really enjoys transit, especially planning. So I worked at VTA in Santa Clara for about five years and then I came back home to DC and I’ve been with DASH for just over six years now as the Director of Planning and Marketing.
MM: Very nice! So talk to us a little bit about the decision to go fare-free – when did that happen, when did that change come over? Tell us about the internal conversation – it’s a big change for a lot of organizations.
JB: I’ll start and Martin can talk a little bit more about the details of it. But on a high level, I think that fare-free transit has always been in some ways, a dialogue throughout the entirety of my career. I think back to my days as a driver, wondering if is it really equitable and why is it that some people are having to drop money in this farebox. Students were able to ride for free, but the public had to pay – so I scratched my head a little bit at that.
But here in Alexandria, it had been a discussion before the pandemic as to whether it would be something that would even potentially be feasible. And although it’s a relatively small chunk of our budget, it always comes down to money as everything does. Thinking about it and talking about it was one thing, but seeing a practical way and what it means to make it happen was another. The sort of precipice that gave us the opportunity to do this was the pandemic and many transit systems throughout the country, I think thought the same way. But part of the discussion had been on a low simmer before the pandemic. And it really is about equity, it’s about accessibility transit, treating transit as an infrastructure and not as a business as it has largely been treated for the entirety of its existence.
You look back and realize that transit was privately operated in the United States and that failed – that was a model that didn’t work. The reason for that is you can’t recover the money that it costs to operate transit strictly out of the pockets of the people that ride and make it a meaningful experience for them. So, I think that it’s always kind of been a thought, but for us, it was really the opportunity of the pandemic and the funding. But I’ll take it to Martin and let him talk a little bit about the details of how we moved into that arena and what came out of the pandemic and some of the methods we used.
MM: I’d love to hear too, Martin. How did you manage the delivery to the public, marketing that information and making sure riders were aware and the overall change too?
MB: Josh nailed it in terms of how we arrived at free fares and it wasn’t an arrival, it was a gradual thing that we’ve been talking about for a number of years. We have a very supportive board of directors for DASH and also our city council with Alexandria has made it a priority to help, especially low-income residents of the community. I think what helped us go there was the pandemic and the fact that ridership was already low, and box revenues were already down, but also trying to help with the pandemic recovery. You always hear that the pandemic hit the pockets of low-income residents the hardest. So we were trying to make sure that we’re finding ways to make things a little easier for them to get around and help with the recovery. It’s not just about the people that are riding the transit, it’s also about the entire city because the more people that are on the buses, the better it is for everybody.
We did a study back in 2020 and looked at different options for reduced fares. Do we have a program where we offer half-price fares?
MM: How did you do that study? I know it’s difficult to put together studies and look at analysis quickly. But how did you wrap that one up?
MB: We did hire a consultant for that one. And we looked at three different scenarios that would have either a free fare for everybody, a free fare if you qualify at a certain income level, or a half-price fare for a certain income level. What really jumped out to us from that study is that the administrative burden and the impact on customers would be immeasurably greater for all free fares if you just rip the band-aid off. You just cover the fare boxes and let everybody on.
There are just so many barriers that are created by programs for income verification. Even if you have a program like food stamps, you see such a low number of actual people using and benefiting from those programs compared to the ones that are eligible. There’s really a barrier to entry with those types of programs that we wanted to remove. And there are a lot of people that are above that income threshold – maybe their income is a little too high to meet the threshold, but they could still really benefit from these types of free fare programs. We wanted to maximize the benefit and we had a very supportive leadership at DASH that enable us to do that.
MM: Was there any pushback from any city organizations, or boards or was everyone on board and understood the direction and importance of fare-free transit?
JB: I don’t know if I would describe it as pushback, but more as hesitation. The reality is that when you talk about eliminating fares, you have not only a financial gap to make up for but a policy decision that is in effect now and in the future and the ability to roll back that policy decision is very limited. So for us, it was a lot of thinking about how this decision could impact our community, why would we do it, and do the pros outweigh the cons that could potentially come up in the future. And certainly, in our case, we’ve seen that they definitely do – the success rate of this is significant! But politics change, people change opinions and you have new elected officials over time, and sometimes even as a result of the change of the economic climate and other external factors, there can become a change in the political will to do something like this. In our case though, I think as Martin stated, we have a very supportive community and council, and we’ve clearly demonstrated the success of this. So that component is certainly not an ongoing challenge for us.
What I think the other concern for us is that we were collecting maybe around $4 million a year in a budget just shy of $30 million. So the reality is it was a chunk of the budget but not such a significant one that could make up for the majority of our funding. And so when we think about that and we potentially have someone who comes along and says: “You’ve got to make up that difference.” and they look at us and say: “How are you going to make up that difference?” Well, the only real way to make up that difference is an adjusting service. And our priority and the board’s priority was to state very clearly at the onset of this, that’s not an option. We’re not interested in being fare-free to sacrifice the quality or quantity of our service. And that was probably a factor that I think has been a concern. It hasn’t really materialized to any large extent yet, but it certainly is a question that gets asked frequently.
MM: А lot of agencies probably have some reservations and fears about going fare-free and they are wondering how to make up the financial gap. So they might have questions like “How do we keep operating?”. Are there different grants you went after? And how do you balance maintaining the service while going fare-free and having the same quality, if not better?
MB: I think one of the things that we’ve done really well and we’ve been really fortunate with is that we have a number of grants that we’ve been able to secure that have helped both with service and offsetting the cost of free fares. The biggest one for free fares is that the State Department of Rail and Public Transportation offered a new grant program called the TRIP Program. It’s a transit ridership incentive program that was specifically designed for these types of fare relief programs. I think that other states have considered it as well. But we’ve been extremely successful. We were able to secure funding through that which has been a portion of the lost revenues from free fares. It’s a program that relies on a local match as well, but that’s a significant grant that we’re able to take advantage of for the next couple of years. That has been a big part of it as well.
But you’re right that the biggest barrier to free fares is going to be the financial aspect – finding funding for it and finding will for it. As Josh said, we’re concerned, but we’re fortunate that we’ve been one of the only agencies that have been able to implement free fares while also stressing the importance of frequency having a frequent bus network.
We recently redesigned our network, actually. The same day that we went fare-free was the day that we launched our brand new DASH bus network back in September of 2021. I think having that compliment of both the free fares and the more useful, frequent all-day service has really been the foundation of the success that we’ve seen over the last 18 months. It’s a big undertaking to swap to fare-free and also redesign and enhance the network.
MM: How did you communicate all of that to riders – the launch of those things on the same day? And I think a huge question looming on everybody’s mind is: “How did that affect ridership?”
MB: I would say that the new network was much longer. I think we started that project back in 2017 – it was called Alexander Transit Vision Plan. And then the first phase of which was the new DASH network that we launched back in 2021. But the new DASH network implementation took over a year to plan. We redrew all of our routes to provide more useful service in key corridors and we renumbered routes. We had new bus stops and things to consider and we were doing it all right overnight. So we basically had stop covers over all the stops and then we around overnight and rip the stop covers off to reveal the new network. So it was a lot of coordination – a full year to figure that out.
The communication side was a huge part of it because people had to relearn a whole new network that they had been using for the past 35 years. So that was probably the biggest job – helping people to learn how to use this new network, how it benefits them, and why we did this in the first place. So we had some tools that we’re able to use for that – a lot of pop-up events and route comparison tools. We had a trip planner that you could enter your trip at a specific time of day, and you could see how you’re able to make your trip today and how you’re able to make it with a new network. We were really helpful in communicating the new system to the public and helping them understand it. After the first month, it really settled down and people began to understand it better and asked about ridership.
We’ve seen unprecedented ridership growth in the last 15 months. We obviously were down during the pandemic. We were down around 50% of pre-pandemic levels before we launched the new network and free fares. Presently, we are well above pre-pandemic levels. We’re the only major transit agency in the DC area that is above pre-pandemic ridership levels. We saw over 380,000 boardings back in September, which was the highest single month we’ve seen for DASH since 2015. So our daily ridership compared to before the pandemic has doubled for weekdays – Saturday and Sunday with the biggest gains coming during off-peak periods. So I think that’s kind of a testament to the power of providing more frequent all-day service in key corridors combined with the free fares. So just making it a lot easier to use and a lot more accessible.
MM: That is very impressive! There are a lot of communities trying to figure this out – how to get back to even close pre-pandemic numbers, let alone, exceed them? So, that kind of success is pretty unprecedented. Is it the decision to stay fare-free?
JB: Yes, given the things I highlighted before and what we’re seeing in the immediate future, absolutely! As Martin mentioned, we have this grant and one of the great things about how this grant is set up is that it provides three years of step-down funding with the fourth year being no funding, but you are required to continue the program for that for at least that year. So what it does is it essentially helps the local community to build this into a long-term sustainable funding model. In Alexandria, we have seen the numbers we know the effect it’s having and we see the support continuing. So we are not anticipating going back any time in the near future and hopefully ever. We have a fare-free framework that was established by the board in conjunction with staff when at the onset of going fare-free. And that really helps to define the steps and the sort of points of no return on certain elements of fare collection.
And one of those we’re coming up on is physically removing the fare box equipment from all of our buses. Martin’s team has led a project to outfit our entire fleet with automated passenger counters. And so we are 100% equipped with those. We’re working through the certification process and when that’s done, the drivers won’t even have to deal with counting passengers at all. The removal of that technology that’s on the bus right now, which is very old and outdated, is another one of those points in the plan that helps us to further solidify the fare-free program. And I would just say that any system that’s considering doing this really needs to consider those factors and create some local agreement as to what it is that you are gonna do at what points in the implementation of a program like this. Because farebox equipment is a major investment and something that oftentimes transit systems struggle to fund. In our case, we were right there with old outdated equipment that was getting ready to be replaced. And we figured out that we were anticipating spending at least $5 million to refit the fleet with fare equipment. That’s more than a year’s worth of fares collected at the very peak of our fare collection in history. Those are things that come along with this fare-free framework that helps ensure that everyone understands where we are and where we’re going and that this is not about a light switch. You don’t flip it on and off at will, it’s not a decision that you take lightly and it’s not a commitment that’s typically rolled back. And we know that from not only talking with our peers who’ve already done this but from our own experience as well.
MB: I think we have a pretty compelling story that shows that this is something that needs to be kept. We’ve done customer surveys and aside from the ridership, the customer surveys show that the community has really responded to this program. We’ve got lots of testimonials about how it’s made a change in their lives. But really what we’ve found is that 20% of our riders are new riders that have started riding since the new network and free fares were launched. 70% of our existing riders are riding more because of free fares and the new network. So I think we’re seeing a really tremendous response from the community, especially when you look at the low-income and socio-economically disadvantaged parts of our community, those percentages are even higher. It’s really a beneficial program and it’s really achieving the goals that we’ve set out for it.
MM: It’s hard to argue data like that! As we wrap up here, do you have any final words of advice or encouragement for any agencies that are looking to go down the path that DASH has been successfully galloping down?
MB: It has been a very successful program. We’ve got a report that we just put out on dashbus.com/free. You can check out more details about that – there have been challenges and you can read about them in the report. Nothing too major that would cause us to reassess the program but it’s not quite as easy as it might look. The importance of free fares and lowering barriers overall is such a critical thing. It’s not just about the money for free fares, it’s also about the ability to understand the system. If you go to a new city and you’re not familiar with how their transition works, it’s not just the $2 you pay for a ticket but also figuring out how you pay that $2. And maybe there’s a fear of if there’s transit police that you have to worry about and getting a citation. If you’re in a foreign country – a place that doesn’t speak your language, that is even more difficult. There are a lot of barriers besides just the money itself that makes the case for free fares a compelling one. But I would just say lastly that, we talked a little bit about the importance of the service cannot be overstated – you need to couple free with frequent all-day service, not just on weekdays, but also on weekends. I think that’s really important – it’s difficult financially, but I think that’s an important note to make.
JB: I agree with everything that Martin said and I would add, as I alluded to earlier in the podcast, this is about rethinking how transit is treated both on a local and national level. It’s important on the level of a leader of a transit agency that’s looking at doing this to really be active in discussing how the community and how the political leaders are seeing this service. Do you understand that it is an infrastructure? Do you see it that way? Do you view it as a business? And if you view it as a business, what really are your expectations of this business? Because frankly, the majority of the time, if you try to view transit as a business it’s a failing bankrupt business, and that’s because the cost to provide quality service cannot be passed down to the rider. You see that in other things – you see various ride-shares coming and going, you see the challenges that ride-shares face in providing the deal that transit provides, the opportunity, the flexibility, and the equity as Martin pointed out that transit provides. So it’s really a big part of the continuing shift of rethinking how transit is viewed in our country. And to Martin’s point as an infrastructure, we need to invest in that. We invest in roads and bridges, we invest in public services, and we invest in fire, police, and health care. We need to invest in transit because transit is a means to access your life. It’s a means to move around. It’s a means to your own survival and the economic sustainability and growth of this country. It’s really important for agencies who are talking about this to also not just focus on the question of fare-free, but the question of what is transit and how is it viewed in the community.
MM: Yes, absolutely! Thank you for sharing. I may be a little biased as well, but I wholeheartedly agreed that more funding has to go into that infrastructure to help people move. It’s how communities live and breathe and grow – it’s an artery. Thank you both so much for being on the podcast chatting about the fare-free scenario and also about the success of Alexandria. Congrats to both of you!
JB: Happy to be a part of the conversation. Yeah,
MM: Thanks to our listeners! If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to subscribe. You’ll get a notification when we have a new one posted. Please rate and review – let us know if you like it, and share it with some colleagues and friends in the industry. Thank you again for listening. I hope you’re leaving with some great takeaways and some cool insights.