MA: Popular fare-free Worcester bus program extends to 5th year. Beyond that is anyone’s guess

May 17, 2024
The WRTA first implemented its fare-free bus program in March 2020 during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the father of an infant, Thomas Poulin of Worcester often worries about the cost of his rent, food, diapers, clothes and other basic necessities that he and his family need.

With transportation, however, Poulin told MassLive there are no such concerns, as he can take a Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) bus to work without paying a single dollar thanks to the authority’s fare-free program.

“It makes taking the bus a lot less stressful, Poulin said. “I don’t have to worry about if I have enough money on my Charlie Ticket until my next paycheck.”

The WRTA first implemented its fare-free bus program in March 2020 during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the WRTA advisory board voted to renew the program, allocating funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020.

Since then, the board has continued to extend the program yearly using funding from the CARES Act and grants awarded by the state. The most recent extension occurred on April 18, 2024, when the board voted to allocate $4.5 million in CARES Act funds to keep the program running until June 2025.

But the continuation of the program beyond then is not a guarantee. Decisions are made based on how much funding the authority receives each year, according to officials.

For riders such as Poulin, the extension of the fare-free program has been beneficial for both his personal finances and his family’s well-being. Prior to the fare-free program, Poulin said he would have pay $2.50 to get to work and back — two $1.25 fares. Without the fares, however, Poulin said he saved $12.50 a week.

That makes a big difference for family necessities, especially for his infant daughter.

“$12.50 can buy the yogurt pouches she loves and it’s about half of what her diapers cost,” Poulin said. “My rent might be pretty affordable but still a large amount of my income goes to it plus having a small baby is really expensive.”

Poulin is not the only rider in Worcester who told MassLive that the fare-free program has been beneficial.

Adam James Ross told MassLive that he has used the WRTA for work and leisure since he moved to Worcester from Boston seven years ago. Whenever he has to catch a train from Union Station or take his daughter to school, Ross said he uses the bus as his primary mode of transportation.

“We like not having to rely on a car and our use of public transit in general saves the household a ton of money,” Ross said. “Not to mention, wear and tear on our personal vehicles.”

Pierce McDonnell, another Worcester resident, uses the WRTA to get to work. He praised the fare-free program and said it is a better alternative to ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft.

“When there is no bus, I have to take a Lyft to work,” McDonnell said. “When there is a bus, it saves a lot more than when I use a Lyft.”

Increased ridership

In addition to saving riders money, the fare-free program has also resulted in a surge in ridership for the WRTA, according to Joshua Rickman, the public transit administrator for the authority. Rickman told MassLive that in fiscal year 2023, the WRTA had more than 4 million riders use their services, an increase from a reported ridership of 3.5 million the previous year.

Rickman said the rise in ridership was connected to the fare-free program. A poll released on March 22 by the MassINC Polling Group found that 70% of Worcester residents supported extending the fare-free program for the fifth year. The poll results showed that the fare-free program was the most popular among respondents who regularly take the bus and those who make less than $50,000 yearly.

“It is anticipated that the WRTA will surpass 4 million passengers in fiscal 2024,” Rickman said. “The WRTA will continue to look for any state or national grant opportunities that would further support this program.”

Rickman confirmed to MassLive that it is the hope of WRTA to keep the fare-free program running as long as possible, wether it means the agency continues to use the remainder of the CARES Act funds or through the use of grants awarded by the state or federal government.

Rickman said neither the WRTA nor the advisory board know if they plan to continue to renew the service after fiscal 2025, as decisions are made based on how much funding the authority receives each year.

“The WRTA Advisory Board approves the WRTA budget on an annual basis as the funding levels are also provided on an annual basis,” he said. “Given the annual nature of funding, the suspension of fare enforcement is also considered on annual basis during the budget approval process.”

Support from the state Senate

Even though the WRTA board has not considered a long-term plan for the fare-free program yet, the Massachusetts state Senate is advocating for its continuation. The upper chamber of the Massachusetts Legislature supports fare-free programs for all 15 regional transit authorities in its proposed fiscal 2025 budget. The $57.9 billion budget would allocate $214 million to fund the 15 regional authorities, with $40 million spent on fare-free programs.

Aside from the WRTA, three MBTA bus routes in Boston have fare-free programs set to continue until 2026. These bus routes are numbered 23, 28 and 29. Other regional transit authorities, such as the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SRTA), are running a “try transit” fare-free pilot program from the beginning of January 2024 to the end of June 2024.

Despite the proposed funding, a study shared with MassLive on Tuesday by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University and the Quaboag Connector, a regional transit provider, found that the current system for funding regional transportation systems is unreliable. The report found that 32.6% — nearly a third — of funding for regional transportation comes from local support and can vary based on the tax rate of each town or city. According to the report, the state’s current method of funding regional transit authorities is “fragmented and incomplete,” with less focus in particular for rural areas.

“In rural parts of the state, where the residential and commercial tax base is more limited, the local contributions can be a significant financial burden,” the report’s authors wrote.

While the future is unclear about the funding of regional transit systems, one thing remains clear — there is broad support for fare-free programs. The MassInc poll found that 45% of respondents said they would be less likely to take the bus if the fare-free program on the WRTA ended. Some riders, such as Ross, told MassLive that they would even be willing to have their taxes raised to keep the program alive.

“The program has been so helpful to so many,” he said. “It feels almost futuristic to be able to just hop on and off as needed. Truly progressive.”

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