Fare debate: Make buses free to all

WHEN IT COMES to fare-free transit, there are endless opinions. The concept is often assumed to be a fringe idea or not viable in the long-term. Detractors question its benefits and worry that it may force public transit systems to choose between improving service and making it free.

However, even before the pandemic accelerated the adoption of fare-free policies, several transit systems in the United States were experimenting with eliminating fare collection—perhaps most notably, the Kansas City Council voted to eliminate fares in 2019. Locally in Massachusetts, the regional transit authorities in Worcester and Merrimack Valley had also begun experimenting with fare-free service before 2020.

In fact, a recent report from the National Academies Transportation Research Board reviewed more than 20 fare-free programs from across the country and found that, in most cases, fare-free transit increased ridership, improved on-time performance, and decreased conflicts between riders and operators.

The mounting nationwide data are quite clear—there are many benefits of eliminating fare collection, especially on buses. Aside from the obvious benefit to riders, there are significant benefits that the bus operators and agencies themselves enjoy. Removing bus fares speeds up service by reducing “dwell time” at the bus stop—bus drivers don’t need to wait for riders fumbling with change, while passengers wait on the stairs behind them. Bus riders can also enter through the back door to avoid a line or for quicker entry without breaking any laws. Freeing bus operators from enforcing fare payment also reduces opportunities for conflict onboard buses. An additional benefit is that the apparatus and process of counting money, supervising its count, keeping it guarded, depositing it in the bank, printing and distributing passes, processing credit cards, and maintaining fare boxes is no longer necessary—all expensive and time-consuming activities that achieve no transportation function.

Given the proven operational benefits—on top of the equity benefits of improving access for riders who are often lower income and people of color—it should not be surprising that six transit agencies in Massachusetts have introduced some form of sustained fare-free service. In Worcester, where all bus transit has been fare-free since the start of the pandemic, local transit has seen the largest increase in ridership and the transit authority recently decided to build on its well documented success by investing an additional $3.6 million in pandemic funds to extend fare-free service.

The city of Boston also utilized federal pandemic funds to revive ridership and provide better service to low-income neighborhoods of color. In August 2021, the city worked with the MBTA to launch a three-month pilot program to eliminate fares on the most popular route in the MBTA bus system. The pilot was immediately successful, increasing ridership and reducing the time it took for buses to pick up passengers and complete routes. Based on this initial success, and further leveraging federal pandemic relief dollars, Boston announced that the fare-free pilot would be expanded to two other popular routes that also travel through largely Black neighborhoods. Over half of riders on these routes are classified as low-income, according to the MBTA’s most recent system-wide survey.

Recent analysis of data from the MBTA shows that ridership more than doubled from the week of February 15, 2021, before the program started, to the same week of 2023. Ridership on these fare-free lines is up about 16 percent above pre-pandemic levels, unlike other MBTA bus lines, where ridership systemwide remains about 21 percent below mid-February 2020 numbers.

Merrimack Valley: Eliminating Fares + Improving Service

The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority is a local agency that operates public buses and shuttle vans across 17 cities and towns in northeastern Massachusetts. The authority faced the same challenges that many other transit systems faced during the pandemic, but chose not to scale down service as many other transit systems did. Over half (53 percent) of riders have incomes under $22,000 and many have no access to a private vehicle. Any reductions in service would have cut off a critical lifeline for thousands of people in the region.

The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (or MeVa as it has come to be known) was able to innovatively improve service and access as a result of $16.9 million received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in 2020, followed by $5.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in 2022. Rather than sit on the money and wait to fill budget holes until the pandemic subsided, they invested boldly in how they operated and how they treated their employees.

With federal dollars, the transit authority was able to improve service for riders and take better care of employees without depending on fare revenue. Service in Lawrence, the largest city within the system, increased from running every 60 minutes to running every 30 minutes in September 2022. New routes were introduced and bus stop shelters were improved. Despite a steep increase of riders, complaints went down 31 percent.

The expansion of bus routes in the Merrimack Valley transit system stands in sharp contrast to the Boston region’s MBTA transit system and most others in Massachusetts which have been forced to cancel routes because of a shortage of bus drivers. In the face of labor shortages and pandemic quits, the MBTA is still struggling to fill a backlog of hundreds of employee vacancies, including 350 bus drivers this year. The MBTA has advertised widely for workers and offered signing bonuses, but starting wage levels remain low for commercial drivers.

Meanwhile the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority was able to add routes with additional staff because it committed early to investing in its workers. Early in the pandemic, in the face of what could have been a bitter contract renegotiation, the authority instead signed a 15.8 percent pay increase that helped retain and recruit bus drivers and other workers. Starting drivers earn $4 an hour more than they would at the larger Boston MBTA, which just received a 2 percent wage increase. Employees also found their breakroom refurbished with a massage chair, cappuccino maker, and widescreen TV. On top of that, bus drivers were liberated from the aggravation and increasing risk of assault from enforcing that riders pay proper fare.

The transit authority has built upon its initial fare-free service with additional sources of funding. In September of 2019, they worked with the city of Lawrence to provide free service on the three primary routes that crisscross downtown Lawrence. The city provided the funds to cover the first two years of free service that yielded a 24 percent increase in ridership on the line. In March of 2022, the authority utilized federal funds to expand free service across the entire system and removed the fareboxes from all its vehicles. Ridership doubled during the year that followed.

Going fare-free both attracted new riders and won back other travelers who’d avoided the bus since the onset of COVID-19. Ridership gains far exceeded those at the larger Boston-area MBTA. Increasing access for riders in the Merrimack Valley region also provided new opportunities to Hispanic and Black communities, which had been hit particularly hard during the pandemic. Half of riders are Black or Hispanic, with 36 percent of riders being white.

MeVa is perhaps the clearest local example demonstrating that transit systems can offer fare free service, while also improving and expanding service.

Riding into the future

What will happen after federal pandemic dollars are all spent? Without prospects for further federal relief, Massachusetts will need to find other ways to sustain the improvements that MeVa, the city of Boston, and other transit authorities have shown are possible.

Unfortunately, support from the Massachusetts state budget for regional transit has been tentative in recent years. After adjusting for inflation, basic operating support for Massachusetts’ 15 regional transit authorities declined nearly 5 percent from state fiscal year 2016 to 2023.

However, there are several reasons to believe there is a viable path forward to fund free transit in Massachusetts in the long term. The recently passed Fair Share Amendment is collecting an additional 4 percent tax from the highest income residents in Massachusetts and those funds have been constitutionally allocated to support education and transportation. In Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed budget, Fair Share funds have been allocated toward increasing affordability on the MBTA, and for innovative pilots and service improvements on regional transit authorities.

Other opportunities may make it easier for the Legislature to sustain the kinds of successes MeVa and other regional transit authorities have achieved. Last session, the Legislature approved $7 million in bond funding for additional pilot programs to go fare free. Lawmakers could nearly quadruple this sum in the next budget merely by ending the state’s counterproductive sales tax exemption for private aircraft.

Additionally, US Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley recently reintroduced the Freedom to Move Act, which would support state and local efforts to promote public transportation as a public good for all by establishing a $25 billion competitive grant program over five years to support state and local efforts to implement fare-free public transportation systems. While this may not provide federal funds overnight, the bill has received growing support each time it has been introduced.

 In addition to all the potential levers and pots of money for expanding fare-free access to transit, these programs have immense support from advocacy groups, as well as Massachusetts residents. A June 2022 statewide poll found 78 percent of residents supported making public buses free to ride.

Free transit, especially when it comes to buses, isn’t a fringe idea. It is a popular and proven method for increasing transit ridership and improving service. It’s time we start treating it as such.

Phineas Baxandall is policy director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center and Stacy Thompson is executive director of the Livable Streets Alliance.