Merrimack Valley RTA goes fare free for two years
‘Boston is actually following our model,’ says administrator
THE MERRIMACK Valley Regional Transit Authority gave a big shot in the arm to the fare-free bus movement on Monday, announcing a two-year experiment where all of its buses will be free to ride.
“It’s the fiscally prudent thing to do,” said Noah Berger, the administrator of the transit authority, which serves the northeast corner of Massachusetts, including the communities of Lawrence, Haverhill, Andover, North Andover, Methuen, and Newburyport.
The authority intends to use federal aid to cover the fare loss. Berger declined to say how much federal money will be needed, but he estimates 76 cents of every dollar he collects in fares is eaten up by the cost of collecting the fares, everything from maintaining the fare boxes themselves to the room where the money is counted to the armored car service that takes the money to the bank.
He said collecting fares also comes at a steep cost in terms of operating efficiency. He said dispensing with fares will allow passengers to board buses more quickly, which in turn will allow the buses to run their routes more quickly.
“Boston is actually following our model,” he said. “They’re doing what we did.”
The fare free experiment in the Merrimack Valley began in 2019 when former Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera put up $225,000 to allow three routes within Lawrence to operate with no fares for two years. The experiment boosted ridership, so Berger and the authority decided to eliminate the $1 to $1.25 regular fares on all 23 routes in the system as well as the paratransit service. The only exception is the commuter bus to Boston, which will continue to charge $5 to $6 per ride, or $50 for 10 rides.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu wants to move in the same direction, but her challenge in much greater because the scale of the MBTA is much greater. Wu is using $8 million in federal aid to eliminate fares on the three MBTA bus routes for two years. By contrast, the entire budget of the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority is $18 million.
Boston began in August with a fare free experiment on one bus route, and early results from that test were mixed. The elimination of fares reduced dwell time at stops by 20 percent, which speeded up service. But only a third of the riders saved money; two-thirds saved nothing because they were using the bus to transfer to the subway or commuter rail, where fares remained. (Free transfers between buses and between buses and subways are allowed in most instances on the MBTA.)
In the Merrimack Valley, the system is more self-contained. Riders can connect to the commuter rail, but otherwise they are using the bus to connect within the system.Other regional transit authorities in Worcester and Franklin are also experimenting with eliminating fares. Several municipalities in the MBTA service area are also thinking of giving it a try.
Berger believes the two-year experiment in the Merrimack Valley is worthwhile, but he also acknowledges that there is no plan in place for when the federal money runs out.