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Worcester Considering Fare-Free Bus System

Officials in Worcester are discussing the possibility of eliminating fares for WRTA buses

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City leaders in Worcester, Massachusetts, plan to examine whether a free bus system could work in the community.

The city council supported the idea during a meeting Tuesday night after hearing from advocates who believe transportation needs to be more accessible.

"I think there is a real opportunity to lead the way," said Paul Matthews, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.

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In May, the group released a report detailing the benefits of a free-fare bus system, similar to what municipalities like Kansas City recently approved. They found that ridership dropped 23% between 2016 and 2018 in the Worcester region following a fare hike. Evidence from other cities suggests that removing a fare helps bring those customers back.

"There's been a constant growth in ridership, since then, as people get used to the fare-free model," Matthews said. "It's good for the environment. It's good for the economy."

But it might not be easy to fund.

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority services 37 communities and generates $3.5 million from fares annually.

"'Does it seem sustainable' is the question," said Dennis Lipka, who heads up the organization.

Fares are largely subsidized by federal, state and local funds, which means the price paid by most passengers is $1.75 per trip. While advocates of a free system suggest it would be easy to cover that cost, Lipka said it is more complicated.

"The revenue sources for transit — the state and the federal government — I think are at the break point," he explained. "And they're not interested in paying more."

Implementing free rides system-wide would likely cause them to shorten or eliminate certain services. However, it might be possible to introduce free rides during certain hours or for certain routes.

"My fear would be with free ridership, many of the routes that were not sustainable in the first place might be eliminated," said rider Charles Kiernan.

Advocates hope to avoid that scenario. They suggest removing the current fare collection system, which costs roughly $500,000 to maintain. Lipka said they are in the process of studying how to improve the system, along with considering a pilot program for free rides.

"Fare-free, for many people, is fare replacement. Who is going to pay the fares in place of someone else?" Lipka asked. "And that's the question."

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