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After a year of free rides, CT bus fares are coming back

Carlos Nuñez heads for his bus on Main Street in downtown Hartford. Nuñez had mixed feelings about the bas fares coming back after Friday saying that it was okay he was going to have to buy a monthly pass, but “People like free,” Nuñez said. “Some people are struggling. They don’t got money to pay for the bus, even if it is two or three dollars. A lot of people struggle, a lot of homeless people.”
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
Carlos Nuñez heads for his bus on Main Street in downtown Hartford. Nuñez had mixed feelings about the bus fares coming back, saying that it was OK and he was going to have to buy a monthly pass, but “People like free,” Nuñez said. “Some people are struggling. They don’t got money to pay for the bus, even if it is two or three dollars. A lot of people struggle, a lot of homeless people.”

Connecticut bus riders should prepare to start opening their wallets again. Bus fares for CTtransit will resume Saturday, April 1, after a year of free rides.

For many, the state's decision to waive fares during the COVID pandemic was a money-saver.

“I’m a little devastated,” said Porsha Jones, 31, while waiting for the bus on Main Street in Hartford.

Jones commutes daily from Bloomfield to downtown Hartford for her finance job. She said she’s mentally preparing to start paying $63 again each month for a bus pass and that not having to pay bus fares allowed her to save money for a new car despite inflation.

“Other than that, I’ve been able to eat healthier,” Jones said, noting food is getting more expensive. “But with the bus being free I’ve had additional funds to be able to buy groceries.”

She said her disappointment in the reintroduction of fares won’t keep her from using the bus.

“It comes on time, it’s a great transportation source,” she said.

“I’m a little devastated,” said Porsha Jones of Bloomsfield who works in finance in downtown Hartford. Jones said she’s mentally preparing to start paying $63 again each month for a bus pass and that not having to pay bus fares allowed her to save money for a new car despite inflation.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
“I’m a little devastated,” said Porsha Jones of Bloomfield, who works in finance in downtown Hartford. Jones said that she’s mentally preparing to start paying $63 again each month for a bus pass and that not having to pay bus fares allowed her to save money for a new car despite inflation.

Gov. Ned Lamont told Connecticut Public this week the CTtransit free fare program was a pilot and said federal regulations require it to end pending an equity study.

“So the feds — the federal Department of Transportation — comes to us, and this is a little odd to me, and says, ‘You can’t provide free bus service until you do an equity study,’” Lamont said. “So we’re going to do that ‘equity study.’ Maybe it’s something we can revisit, but I wasn’t allowed by federal law to continue it. I wish I could.”

Federal transit officials said in a statement that "setting fares is a local – and in this case, state – decision."

"Any transit agency decision to eliminate or modify fares must comply with existing federal civil rights requirements," a spokesperson for the Federal Transit Administration said. "Large transit operators are required to conduct an equity analysis before making any fare changes ... lasting longer than six months. This is a routine activity for large transit systems and helps them evaluate whether fare changes will have disparate impacts on the basis of race, color, or national origin."

Last November state lawmakers voted to continue the free bus program, but this week a bill to require the state Department of Transportation to conduct a study failed to make it out of committee.

Around the corner at the Hartford bus stop, marketer Carlos Nuñez, 19, said the return of bus fares will be a tough adjustment for a lot of his Hartford neighbors.

“People like free,” Nuñez said. “Some people are struggling. They don’t got money to pay for the bus, even if it is two or three dollars. A lot of people struggle, a lot of homeless people.”

Paul Calamari, a 65-year-old IT professional, said the resumption of fares won’t keep him from riding the bus, despite its financial impact. He said he commutes to Hartford from his home in Chester and prefers the bus to driving.

“I live down by the shore, so it’s a little longer commute,” Calamari said. “They weren’t running for a while so I had to drive, which was kind of a pain. More costly, too. So taking the bus is great.”

The state Department of Transportation said in a statement it's looking at expanding discount fare programs and streamlining payments for bus passes and daily fares. It’s also soliciting feedback through Friday about ways to improve the transit system.

Nuñez said he’d be buying monthly passes to keep riding a system he enjoys. But he has one suggestion for drivers – the bus really only works if you’re able to get onto it.

“Stop pulling off when people are yelling for you!” he said, laughing.

This story has been updated. Connecticut Public's Patrick Skahill contributed to this report.

A destination sign over a bus' windshield announces the resumption of fares as it makes its way off Main Street in downtown Hartford.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
A destination sign over a bus windshield announces the resumption of fares as it makes its way off Main Street in downtown Hartford.

Chris Polansky joined Connecticut Public in March 2023 as a general assignment and breaking news reporter based in Hartford. Previously, he’s worked at Utah Public Radio in Logan, Utah, as a general assignment reporter; Lehigh Valley Public Media in Bethlehem, Pa., as an anchor and producer for All Things Considered; and at Public Radio Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., where he both reported and hosted Morning Edition.