Chamber backs free bus service in Worcester
Business group calls for 3-year, no-fare experiment
TUCKED INSIDE this week’s transportation funding proposal from the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce was an unusual request.
In addition to offering support for a statewide tolling initiative, a hike in the gas tax, and an increase in rideshare fees, the business group said some of the new revenue should be used to experiment with doing away with fares on the buses operated by the Worcester Regional Transit Authority.
The idea of eliminating the $1.75 bus fare has been percolating in Worcester since May, when the Worcester Regional Research Bureau issued a report suggesting the system was a good candidate for doing away with fares to boost declining ridership. Officials at the Worcester Regional Transit Authority have said they would study the idea, but momentum ratcheted up several notches this week when the local chamber of commerce business group urged lawmakers to use revenue from a transportation funding bill to pay for a three-year test of the concept.
The ride-for-free push has slowly been picking up steam across the state. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu got the ball rolling, first on the CommonWealth Codcast last year and then more formally with a proposal in January that included as a fallback position making some individual bus routes free.
Massport plans to offer similar pricing on an airport shuttle from North Station next year. The agency already offers free rides from the airport to South Station, where passengers gain free access to the entire MBTA subway system.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera jumped on the free bandwagon in September, agreeing to pick up the cost of operating three bus routes within the city limits as long as passengers pay nothing to hop on board. The buses are operated by the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, and the city of Lawrence is covering the $225,000 in estimated lost fare revenue for the next two years.
Alex Guardiola, director of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the idea of doing away with fares is accelerating because buses needed to be filled to help relieve the state’s worst-in-the-nation congestion. He said Massport and Lawrence are just reacting to data. “They’re seeing some of the same hurdles and issues we’re seeing here in Worcester. The research shows going free boosts ridership,” he said.Riders have been steadily abandoning the Worcester bus system since 2016. Last year saw the fewest passenger trips since a driver strike in 2005 and the lowest in a year without strikes since ridership information was first tracked in 1991.
The Worcester Regional Transit Authority collects about $3 million a year in fare revenue, which covers about 14 percent of its operating expenses. But the Worcester research report said the agency also spends more than $800,000 a year to maintain and operate its fare system. The report also noted that collecting fares slows down bus service as passengers que up at the door to pay and board; slow, irregular service is one of the biggest complaints of the city’s bus riders, and is likely contributing to the drop in ridership.