Let’s make free fares in Worcester permanent

City using federal aid now, but is seeking additional state funding

A correction has been added to the commentary.

THE WORCESTER Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) has solidified its place as a leader in the fare-free public transportation movement, with the WRTA Advisory Board voting unanimously on April 20 to continue operating fare-free through June 2024, thereby becoming the longest-running fare-free transit system in the state and among the longest-running fare-free transit systems in the country. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this commentary said Worcester had the longest-running fare-free transit system in the country.)

For the Worcester region, public transportation plays a critical role connecting workers to essential jobs and residents to needed health care and social services. In a time of rising costs of living, residents face difficult tradeoffs with how to spend limited financial resources, and access to fare-free transportation enables residents to travel within the region and support the local economy with less of an impact on their wallets and on the environment.

The WRTA Advisory Board’s vote followed its Audit and Finance Committee’s recommendation last month to utilize available federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to continue its suspension of fares, which was initiated in March 2020.  The continuation of free fares on the WRTA serves as an example for others across the state and country.  Some transit systems in Massachusetts are piloting free fares, including the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority and Boston, which is providing fare-free bus rides on three MBTA routes in Boston’s underserved neighborhoods.

Progress towards a fare-free WRTA did not happen overnight.  Around 2018, a group of riders and grassroots social justice advocates came together to form the Zero Fare WRTA Coalition to call for the elimination of bus fares and the improvement of WRTA service.  Soon after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, transit agencies across the state and beyond, including the WRTA, suspended fares for public safety and health reasons.  As the pandemic began to abate and restrictions were lifted, most transit agencies reverted to fare collection.  In the Worcester region, strong and continuous advocacy from the Zero Fare WRTA Coalition successfully influenced the WRTA to continue the suspension of fares several times, utilizing federal CARES Act funding to replace lost fare revenue.

Recognizing transportation as an important social determinant of health, The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts provided strategic guidance and grant funding to support volunteer stipends and supplies for the coalition in April 2020 to bolster the momentum created by the pandemic-initiated suspension of fares.  Additional foundation funding was provided in August 2021 to match Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) funding for the coalition.  Other community organizations and federal and state legislators voiced their strong support for fare-free transportation, and the Worcester Regional Research Bureau also issued several timely reports and data visualization on WRTA financing and ridership.

Notably, the effort benefited significantly from the leadership of WRTA Advisory Board Chair Gary Rosen, previously a Worcester city councilor, who demonstrated long-standing support for free fares and masterfully shepherded recent discussions on this issue.

As one of the silver linings of the pandemic, the availability of significant federal CARES Act funding enabled the coalition to effectively advocate that the WRTA had sufficient runway to continue free fares while pursuing increased state funding, which constitutes the greatest share of revenue for regional transit authorities (RTAs).  The coalition engaged with statewide RTA advocacy efforts including the RTA Advocates Coalition, co-convened by the Massachusetts Public Health Association and T4MA, to push for legislation that would set state funding for RTAs at $150 million, a much-needed $56 million increase. In addition, current state budget proposals under consideration include increased funding for RTAs in recognition of the need to invest in public transportation beyond the MBTA.

Now, on the heels of this important WRTA milestone – three years of continuous fare-free service with at least one year more through June 2024 – our attention must turn to this next hurdle of securing increased state funding.  Doing so will help sustain the hard-fought victory in central Massachusetts, expand this success to RTAs across the state, and enable service improvements.    Former Massachusetts secretary of transportation James Aloisi recently articulated the need to think differently about public transportation and its future.  Transportation is a public good, and it is one worthy of broad public support.

Statewide, public support is strong, with a recent MassINC Polling Group poll indicating that 79 percent of Massachusetts residents support increased state funding for RTAs, with 69 percent supporting the specific proposal to increase funding to $150 million.  The Worcester region provides a shining example of what can be achieved when advocates, funders, researchers, and public officials come together in pursuit of a shared goal with collaboration, perseverance, and also a bit of serendipity.  Imagine what we can achieve by applying this model statewide.

Amie Shei is the president and chief executive officer of The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.