DULUTH – Some local bus fares may be falling as the Duluth Transit Authority seeks to increase ridership after a deep downturn during the pandemic.

"How can we make our fare process more equitable, more accessible?" said David Clark, spokesman for the Duluth Transit Authority (DTA). "This is the first of many initiatives around that."

Day passes will drop from $4 to $3; seven-day passes will fall from $17 to $15; and a 31-day youth pass will drop from $37.50 to $30 under the plan that has been approved by the DTA board of directors.

To speed boarding, buses will no longer accept pennies. The agency will also stop selling 90-, 180- and 360-day passes.

Daily one-way fares, now 75 cents or $1.50 during peak hours, will remain the same.

"These changes are designed to simplify the system, expedite the boarding process, and encourage ridership," DTA general manager Phil Pumphrey said in a statement.

The plan came together as ridership dropped more than 50% during some months last year and follows a long-term strategic plan the agency adopted several years ago. The DTA is also working on mobile app payments and is looking at "fare capping" to help riders get the best price for their transit needs.

A large number of college classes moving online and an increase in working from home has been at the root of the ridership decline, though Pumphrey said he expects those trends to start reversing in the coming months.

"Our ridership has been down like most transit systems," Pumphrey said in an interview. "Some of these changes should bring back riders, especially as the vaccine becomes available and mask-wearing becomes widespread."

Though the fare reduction could cost the agency in the short term, the DTA receives the majority of its revenue from the state based on ridership, and it received help from the federal coronavirus stimulus package early last year.

Out of a $19.5 million budget for 2021, about $13.6 million is expected to come from the state with another $1 million from the federal government.

The DTA, which is a special taxing district, asked for the same local levy for 2021 as it had in 2020 — about $1.67 million.

In 2019 the agency recorded 2.6 million fixed-route rides, a slight decline in ridership from 2018, according to the most recently available federal data. The DTA serves a 69-square-mile area and a population of about 102,000.

The DTA is operating nearly all of its routes, with just a handful paused since October "due to current staffing realities, and in an effort to maintain our systemwide reliability," the agency said.

The public can weigh in on the fares at a virtual meeting Monday from 3 to 5 p.m. or may e-mail comments to planning@duluthtransit.com. The Duluth City Council will have to approve the changes before they are set to take effect March 7.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496