Worcester-Area Buses Will Remain Free Until July

WORCESTER, MA — Buses in the Worcester area will remain free until at least the end of June as the Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) grapples with a push to eliminate fares completely.

WRTA suspended collecting fares almost one year ago, initially as a safety measure to keep bus drivers and passengers separate during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But the WRTA board has voted several times to extend the suspension. At the same time, transit activists have been advocating for eliminating fares permanently since before the pandemic began.

WRTA Director Dennis Lipka has sought to limit the free-fare policy, citing declining revenue. The transit agency has about $37 million available from federal stimulus to backfill pandemic-related losses. But Lipka wants to hold on to the money to offset future losses. He had asked the board to resume fare collection on March 20.

Since last March, WRTA has put safety measures in place to keep riders and drivers separate, which means fares can be collected safely now, Lipka said. However, free-fare advocates argue the pandemic is still raging. A coronavirus vaccine supersite has also opened at Worcester State University, and so many board members want to keep fares free to ensure people can get there.

"Things haven't changed enough to say, 'let's end this now,'" WRTA board member and Worcester Councilor Gary Rosen said.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern spoke to the board and said WRTA may be able to count on about $30 billion in funds for transit in a new federal stimulus bill in Congress. That bill could be approved as soon as March, he said.

"The people in our community who are being hit hardest are often the people who rely most heavily on our transit system," McGovern said.

LiveableStreets Alliance community engagement manager Kristiana Lachiusa also spoke, telling the WRTA board there's a state-level bill in the works that would allow regional transit agencies to fund fare-free pilot programs. State Sen. Hariette Chandler is expected to cosponsor that measure, Lachiusa said.

Lipka and many board members sought to separate the pandemic fare suspension from the larger push, headed by the Zero Fare WRTA coalition, to permanently end fare collections. Lipka said the recent fare suspension is not a pilot program. He described recent ridership as "mercurial," and said the system is only operating at about 50 percent of normal right now.

The board ultimately voted unanimously — with Chair William Lehtola of Spencer abstaining — to keep the fare suspension in place until the end of fiscal year on June 30. The vote included a caveat that fares will resume on July 1 unless WRTA finds a new revenue stream to support a longer fare-free period.