WRTA board votes to extend fare suspension through June

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority Advisory Board voted Thursday morning to extend the suspension of fare collection through June.

The motion passed 8-0, with an abstention coming from WRTA Advisory Board chairperson William J. Lehtola. As it stands, fares will resume on July 1.

The discussion Thursday morning centered around the allocation of the $37.2M the WRTA received in COVID relief funds from the CARES Act. Advocates for a fare-free system, many from the Zero-Fare WRTA coalition, have been promoting using the funds to continue a suspension of fare collection.

WRTA Administrator Dennis Lipka, however, argued the funds are better served financing a five year plan and detailed some of that plan, which was discussed in a finance subcommittee last week.

Lipka advocated that the administration was in need of resuming fares on March 20 — with the fare suspension in place until then, Lipka says, more than $3M of the CARES Act money the WRTA was awarded from federal government will already have been spent.

“It’s pretty clear that we understand completely that we know we can use CARES Act funds to replace lost revenue because of a suspension of a fare policy,” Lipka said.

Citing Brockton as an example of an RTA that has resumed fare collection safely, he added, “It’s pretty clear that we’ve got pretty good evidence that the fare collection operation is not a way pandemic virus spreads substantially.

“With that in mind, we think it’s proven at this time to move forward with the resumption of the fare policy and stop using the CARES Act money for replacement of fare revenue,” he continued. “And, moving forward, to continue the sustenance of the operating budget of the WRTA.”

Congressman Jim McGovern, a longtime champion of public transportation, thanked the board Thursday for its swift action in suspending fares at the beginning of the pandemic and for keeping the policy in place throughout the pandemic.

He noted, however, that public transit systems are relied upon by vulnerable populations, many of which are essential workers, who will need the buses for transportation to receive COVID vaccines.

“The bottom line is the people in our community who are being hit hardest by the pandemic are often the same people who rely most heavily on our transit system,” he said. “Ideas like covering fares are not just about extending a hand to those in need. They’re just as much about helping us crush the virus and recover faster because essential workers [that] commute on transit who live downtown are going to need to ride the bus to get to be vaccinated.”

“The last thing we need is for shots not to get in the arms of people because they couldn’t get to where they needed to go,” he added.

Kristiana Lachiusa, the communications manager for Livable Streets Alliance, a Metro-Boston based transportation advocacy organization, encouraged the WRTA to stick with a fare-free policy as well.

“You may not recognize it, but leaders across the state and across the country are looking to Worcester as a model for more equitable and efficient transit,” Lachiusa said. “I encourage you to keep going. This is serving as important proof of concept effort that is a critical step towards making the case for sustaining funding for this type of program to be put into place more permanently in Worcester and more broadly for other transit systems across the state.”

Board member Bob Spain pushed back on the idea of allocating the funds in a five year operational manner.

“It’s actually an eight year plan because it really started with 2020, all the way through ‘27,” said Spain. “So your intent is to spend these dollars in different fiscal years for money that was meant to be temporary. I don’t think that’s a great way to do business.

“This is a temporary situation,” he added. “We have temporary funds. Let’s use them to give the people a break. And we’re still in great shape to run our system.”

Worcester Councilor-at-Large Gary Rosen, who is a WRTA board member, hinted at state legislation that might be filed soon that would provide funding for zero-fare pilot program in Worcester.

“I expect we’re going to hear more about it soon,” Rosen said. “But my colleagues on the board today, please understand that we can use the CARES Act money for helping our riders out. The RTA, of course we have financial problems, every single RTA in the country does, but we have CARES money for that for the next several years.”

Riders, Rosen argued, are in an even worse financial situation.

“Our riders have even more, even worse, financial problems than we do,” he said. “...So I’m saying if we can extend the fare free right through June 30 the end of the fiscal year, and then we take another look.”

Spain’s motion to continue the zero fare through June 30, with a resumption on July 1, was then presented to the board, and passed with a 8-0 vote.

A push for a permanent fare free bus system in Worcester has gained considerable momentum over the past two years. At the helm of advocacy is Zero Fare WRTA, a coalition formed after the Worcester Regional Research Bureau’s “Implications of a Fare-Free WRTA” report published in May of 2019. The coalition is made up of citizens advocating and organizing for a Worcester public transit system that is efficient, frequent, convenient and free, the group says.

The Mass. Audobon Society recently vocalized its support for an extension of the WRTA’s fare free policy as well.

“We recommend extending the fare-free policy until more information is available about Federal and State level subsidiaries that may become available due to the commitment of President Biden and his administration to addressing climate change impacts,” Deborah D. Cary, manager of community advocacy and engagement for Mass. Audubon, wrote in a letter to city officials.

Last March. Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler addressed city officials in a letter, stating, “As Worcester continues to undergo a renaissance, there has never been a better time to undertake a zero-fare approach to the [Worcester Regional Transit Authority]. It has been shown to dramatically increase ridership across demographic groups and destigmatize the use of public transit, bringing with it numerous benefits. Increased ridership offers potential for increased pedestrian traffic in our downtown and commercial districts, generating more lively, walkable areas and increased foot traffic for our businesses.”

panel discussion on implementation of a fare free bus system in Worcester was held in December of last year featuring Senator Chandler, State Rep. David LeBoeuf, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera and Worcester Regional Research Bureau research associate Tom Quinn.

“The conversation we are having now, I imagine is very similar to what it was like when people first started public libraries,” Wu told the panel. “...In this case, we have a lot documentation. We have proof from Lawrence. We have research in Worcester. And we have a whole lot of energy in Boston to back it up as well...The pandemic, in fact, is not the moment to ease off because we are experiencing financial hardships everywhere. It is the moment to dig in and say, ‘This is forcing us to reimagine. This is forcing us to rethink how we pay for things and how we invest in things people desperately need.’”