Ride the Birmingham Xpress for free, at least for now

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Dozens of people took the chance to ride on Birmingham’s new Xpress Rapid Bus Line on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom , WBHM

The Birmingham Bus Rapid Transit system, also known as Birmingham Xpress, will be free for riders for at least the next few months — though exactly how long remains up in the air.

A $300,000 payment approved Tuesday by the Birmingham City Council will cover the cost of eliminating BRT fares while the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority develops a new mobile payment application to encompass all of its services.

The Birmingham Xpress rapid bus line launched in September and offers a single, 10-mile route that runs from east to west across the city, from Five Points West to Woodlawn, with a total of 32 stops. Currently, a one-way trip costs $1.50, while round-trip fare is $3.50. Dedicated bus lanes make the Xpress line faster than other BJCTA routes.

Exactly how long the fares will be waived is unclear. The agreement between the BJCTA and the city does not include a specific timeline.

District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, suggested it would be “October or November of this year when fares will be reimplemented,” while BJCTA Director and CEO Charlotte Shaw suggested that the $300,000 payment “can take us out between nine and 10 months,” and later extended that estimate to 11 months. Later in the meeting she told District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods that $300,000 from the city each year would “absolutely” cover the cost of making BRT free to riders.

“The expectation is that BJCTA will suspend fares until they have the new payment system up and running,” O’Quinn told BirminghamWatch after the meeting. “Currently, they are saying that should be operational in October/November. However, as is often the case, there could be delays. I also expect that having a transitional period would be beneficial.”

However long it lasts, the temporary fee waiver is intended to prevent riders from having to pay multiple fares if they change between a fixed-route BJCTA bus and a rapid-transit bus. That issue that will be permanently solved by the forthcoming mobile app, O’Quinn said, which “would allow persons to do route planning so that they could enter their current location and their destination, and the app would give them route-planning options and allow them to pay the various fees all in one place.”

O’Quinn added that he hoped the fare-waiving period would encourage more Birmingham residents to use Birmingham Xpress. When the service launched in September, it was free to riders through the end of 2022, after which “ridership fell off,” O’Quinn said. “We’re anticipating that as a side benefit of this temporary fare elimination, that we’ll see ridership pick back up.” The Birmingham Xpress is still the highest-performing route in the entire BJCTA system, he said, with “well over 10,000 trips” logged in May alone.

Maybe forever?

There is also the possibility that the city could opt to make the BRT permanently free to riders. District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams suggested that the city should cover Birmingham Xpress fares “in perpetuity.”

“If it’s only $33,000 a month in fares that are needed to operate it, and the ridership dramatically increases with free fares, why would we just not have it free all year long?” he asked. “I can’t believe the city of Birmingham spent, along with $20 million from the feds, about $66 million on this BRT and we’re not just making it free for $300,000 a year.”

That’s something that “perhaps we should consider,” O’Quinn said after the meeting. “We’ll have to see what the data reveals.”

 

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