Valley Transit eyes another summer of free bus rides

The agency has successfully used the tactic in previous years to build a habit of ridership that carries over when fares are reinstated in the fall.

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WALLA WALLA -- A fare-free summer may be on the horizon for Valley Transit passengers.

The agency that provides public transportation throughout the Walla Walla area is considering the return of a summertime promotion from a few years ago that helped raise awareness of the bus system and built permanent ridership through free fares.

The topic will be discussed at tonight's Valley Transit board meeting, which begins at 7:05 p.m. in the board room of the transit facility, 1401 W. Rose St.

The proposal is a response to a slight decrease in ridership, said Valley Transit General Manager Dick Fondahn. He said an increase to 75 cents in fares in recent years may be contributing to the drop, but he also attributes it to a shift in use from Walla Walla Public Schools.

Fondahn said the school district reduced its purchase of bus passes by one-third for the school year.

The district previously bought 164 passes, providing transportation to students commuting to school. But the district has reworked its transportation strategy in an effort to reduce expenses and is now down to 110 passes, Fondahn said.

More middle-school students are riding district buses, as opposed to Valley Transit buses. When they get to high school, Fondahn expects the trend will continue because those students will already be familiar with the yellow bus system. He said Valley Transit's goal has always been to coordinate with the district to serve its needs, not compete, so the drop hasn't been as worrisome.

"I would worry if we had a drop in ridership that I can't explain," he said.

At the same time as the decrease in youth riders, Fondahn side adult ridership has been at an all-time high. He said 45 percent of all Valley Transit's riders are youth, but ridership overall is only down 4 percent.

Fondahn said ridership drops drastically in the summer when school is out of session. So the idea was raised to bring back a program from the past that provided free rides and ultimately led to an increase in permanent passengers.

The fare-free summer program was first introduced in 2006. It was "extremely successful," Fondahn said. The revenue loss the first year to provide the service was estimated at $7,000.

But by the time fall came around a healthy 20 percent of the riders stayed on with the service after fares were reinstated. "We felt it was a good investment if we could increase our ridership," Fondahn said.

The program was offered again the next year, and about 10 percent of the summertime riders stayed with the system once the fares were added.

If the program is returned this year it will likely begin after the end of the school year and run through Labor Day. Valley Transit board members may or may not vote on the proposal tonight.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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