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CT Transit bus ridership is recovering, in part because of free fares

Daisy Rodriguez, at rear, takes the bus for free during her break from work as a personal care aide. "It's great because the money that I spent for the bus pass, I can buy things that I need – the things that I couldn't get myself because you have to be on a budget these days," Rodriguez said.
Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror
Daisy Rodriguez, at rear, takes the bus for free during her break from work as a personal care aide. "It's great because the money that I spent for the bus pass, I can buy things that I need – the things that I couldn't get myself because you have to be on a budget these days," Rodriguez said.

Daisy Rodriguez of Hartford takes the bus across town for her jobs — full-time on weekdays, part-time on weekends — as a patient care assistant. She was paying $63 for a 31-day bus pass.

But the state’s fare-free bus program, which began on April 1, has been a godsend. She said the money she saves can go towards the higher costs of groceries and other necessities.

She noted that before the program began, “Sometimes you don’t have the money for the bus fare, and you have to walk.”

It’s hard to find a bus rider who doesn’t share her good opinion of the program.

“There’s no question customers are really enjoying it, and benefitting from it,” said Doug Holcomb, general manager of the Greater Bridgeport Transit Authority, which operates bus and related services in the Bridgeport region. “They’re getting a break when inflation is causing other prices to rise.”

The numbers indicate the fare-free program has drawn more riders to the buses. Unlike rail ridership, which dropped by more than 90% in the depth of the pandemic, bus ridership only dropped by about 50%, said Josh Rickman, assistant general manager of HNS Management, Inc., the private contractor that operates the bus service in Hartford, New Haven and Stamford (hence HNS) for CT Transit, which is owned by the state Department of Transportation.

The state has a quiltwork of transit districts, transit authorities and operators running its bus and paratransit systems. CT Transit is the largest, running the systems in Waterbury, New Britain, Bristol, Meriden and Wallingford as well as Hartford, New Haven and Stamford and carrying about 80% of the state’s bus passengers.

A primary reason bus ridership didn’t take the precipitous dive that train ridership did is that buses carry a lot of essential workers who cannot work remotely and for whom hundreds of dollars a year for the bus is real money. Rickman praised the DOT for maintaining a “pretty high level of service” to serve the medical personnel, sales people and others who have helped society function during the pandemic.

By April 1, when the free fare program began, ridership was back to 70-75% of pre-COVID levels in Hartford, New Haven and Stamford, Rickman said. By the end of May, weekday ridership in the three cities reached nearly 90% of pre-COVID levels, with weekend numbers even higher, in part due to additional weekend service.

While there are other inducements to use transit, such as high gas prices, officials think the free fare is helping bring people back to the buses. DOT spokesman Josh Morgan said the department plans to do a “deep dive” into the numbers at the end of the year to gauge the effects of the program. One hope, he said, is that it is encouraging some drivers to leave their cars at home, noting that even a small drop in driving results in cleaner air.

The data the department develops may inform the discussion about whether to continue the fare-free program, something Governor Ned Lamont is considering. So are officials across the country.

A basic need

Free or reduced-fare programs have been around since at least the 1960s, often as a benefit for seniors, students, military personnel, persons with disabilities or city workers. A few cities were starting fare-free programs before the pandemic struck, and many more joined in when it did.

It’s now possible to get a free bus ride in Richmond, Kansas City, Albuquerque and Olympia, Washington, among other localities.

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu, a pre-COVID advocate of free public transportation, has begun a pilot program in which three heavily used bus lines that run through predominantly Black neighborhoods will be free for the next two years. She told an interviewer that removing barriers to public transportation is a major step toward climate justice, racial equity and mobility

It’s not terribly hard to make a case for fare-free urban transit. The challenge is how to pay for it.

Some cities that went fare free have gone back to collecting fares; others have looked for ways to keep their fare-free program going. In Richmond, which went fare-free in March 2020, the Greater Richmond Transit Company was awarded an $8 million state grant, matched by funds from the city and Virginia Commonwealth University, to evaluate and develop the zero-fare program.

The system surpassed pre-COVID numbers last November. It will stay fare-free for at least another three years.

In Olympia, a small addition to the sales tax is keeping the buses free.

Faced with a budget crunch in 2016, Intercity Transit, which serves four towns around Washington’s capital city with a total population of 200,000, asked residents what kind of public transit they wanted.

“We got 10,000 responses,” said General Manager Ann Freeman-Manzanares in a recent telephone interview. They wanted a good system; reliable, speedy, equitable, efficient, environmentally friendly.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.