Regional transit authorities offer free bus service for holidays

THE PUSH TO lower or eliminate public transit fares is getting a holiday boost from the state, which has unwrapped a $2.5 grant that is allowing all 15 regional transit authorities across Massachusetts to offer fare-free bus service for the rest of the year.

The free-ride initiative, which is being billed as “Try Transit,” begins on the day after Thanksgiving and will continue through New Year’s Eve. 

The move comes on the heels of fare-free efforts launched individually by several RTAs. 

In February, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority announced its buses would all be fare-free for two years. The initiative came on the heels of a 2019 effort begun under then-Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, who committed $225,000 in city funds to the transit authority to allow three bus routes operating within Lawrence to go fare-free for two years. That led to a boost in ridership on the routes, prompting the agency to tap federal relief funding to go fare-free across all its routes, which, along with Lawrence, serve Haverhill, Andover, North Andover, Methuen, and Newburyport.

Brockton got into the fare-free act last year, with all Brockton Area Transit routes offering free weekend service for the summer. 

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority “paused” fares in March 2020, and has yet to reinstate them. 

“The suspension of our fare policy has been popular amongst our riders and we hope that individuals throughout the Commonwealth will take advantage of this no cost program and give transit a try this holiday season,” Worcester Regional Transit Authority administrator Dennis Lipka said about the new state initiative. 

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu has championed the idea of fare-free MBTA service, an idea she first raised on CommonWealth’s Codcast back in 2018, while still a city councilor. The city is currently underwriting a pilot program offering free service on three of the T’s busiest bus routes in Boston. 

Although Wu has said free service across the T system should be the ultimate goal, she said eliminating fares on buses would be a good place to start. The economics of such a policy, and even whether it should be a priority in the effort to boost public transportation use and decrease reliance on cars, are hotly debated

For now, however, the sudden availability of millions of dollars in COVID-related relief funding is allowing for trial runs of fare-free bus service. 

In the Merrimack Valley, where free fares were already slated to continue into 2024, the new state grant will be used to extend free service a bit longer before a decision must be made about fares going forward. “The additional MassDOT funding will allow [the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority] to remain fare free for an additional six weeks, or until Patriots Day 2024, before having to make long term revenue determinations,” according to a statement from the authority provided to the StreetsblogMASS. 

A Springfield Republican editorial praised the new state effort, and optimistically suggested it could make transit converts out of those who reflexively jump in their cars. “The likelihood of riders taking advantage during the free month, then hopping back into their cars once the campaign is over, seems small compared to the prospect of riders discovering a convenient transportation they simply hadn’t tried before,” it says. 

MICHAEL JONAS

 

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