Would free bus rides boost Dayton’s economy?

DAYTON — Mayor Gary Leitzell is looking at the feasibility of providing free bus service to attract businesses and tourists to the Dayton region.

“I’m looking at it as an economic development driver,” he said. “We can start by having a discussion.”

Leitzell said the idea for free bus service sprang from a discussion with Steve Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College, focusing on ways to get more people — under 30 years old — to live and spend time downtown.

“No business will come downtown if people don’t come downtown,” Leitzell said. “I was driving down Main Street and saw an RTA bus with just three people on it. I wondered if more people would come downtown if transportation was free.”

Leitzell shared the idea with the Dayton Board of Education and the City Commission on Tuesday, March 9.

The suggestion didn’t come as a surprise to Mark Donaghy, executive director of the Greater Dayton Regional Transportation Authority, who met with Leitzell about the idea last month. Donaghy’s initial reaction: interest.

“We’re committed to studying other communities with free public transit, looking at the history and background of why they did it,” Donaghy said.

A big obstacle is finding an alternative funding source for the $9.5 million in fares RTA collects each year — roughly 17 percent of its operating budget.

The city of Chapel Hill, N.C., solved that problem by becoming partners with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the city of Carrboro. The entities have funded a free transit service since 2002 by dividing system expenses based on population. About 5.9 million riders use the Chapel Hill service annually. RTA serves more than 11 million passengers.

Leitzell proposed several funding options: assessing residents $5 or $10 a year; tapping college students for a $20 assessment and boosting the number of ads on buses to de-fray the cost.

“I haven’t had a single major negative vibe,” he said. “No one has told me I’m crazy.”

Staff writer Anthony Gottschlich contributed to this report.

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