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Free bus fare has created more traffic on CT Transit — and less on the road

Bridgeport Transportation Center
Lil Keller

As of April 1, 2022, Connecticut residents could ride public transit buses for free. Governor Ned Lamont and the Connecticut Legislature extended the program until December 1 of this year. As a result, Connecticut’s public transit is seeing an increase in ridership.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “CT Transit bus ridership is recovering, in part because of free fares,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: So you say that ridership is recovering for CT Transit. And it's because of free fares. How come we have free fares?

TC: Well, to make ridership recover. No, just kidding. It's actually to help the people who need help, to help the people who use the buses. Interestingly, when the pandemic hit, train ridership dropped on Metro-North by more than 90%. Bus ridership only dropped by about 50%. The main reason is that people who use the buses can't work at home. You can't work remotely if you're a healthcare professional, if you're a salesperson, you have to be there. So bus ridership never dropped to the extent that train ridership did. But to a lot of people paying for their bus fare, this is real money. And this was a way to give them a break to sort of reward them for their good work.

WSHU: Now, CT Transit is not the only bus service that we have in Connecticut. Some municipalities run their own services. Were they also affected?

TC: Yes, the state Department of Transportation subsidizes the bus service across the state. Now CT Transit is the largest of these bus service providers providing service in Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, New Britain, Wallingford and some other small cities. So CT Transit carries about 80% of the bus riders in the state. But then there is also the greater Bridgeport Transit District. We have kind of this funny quilt work of bus operators evolved from the era of private ownership. We’ve ended up with this patchwork of transit districts, transit authorities, Connecticut transit. So it does sort of beg for a management study. But that's what we've got.

WSHU: Now is what's happening in Connecticut any different from what has happened in other states that have tried this type of subsidized or free bus service?

TC: Well, it really isn't. The no fare or reduced fare bus programs have been around for 60 years in one way or another, you know, whether it'd be free fare for students or seniors, sometimes for city employees, sometimes for the military. So this has been around for a long time, but during the pandemic, it picked up. So you've got fare-free programs in cities such as Richmond, Virginia, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Kansas City, Missouri, Olympia, Washington, and among many others, and then some variations of it. Boston has a program where they made three routes fare-free, routes that go through predominantly minority neighborhoods. Mayor of Boston Michelle Wu, has been a longtime advocate of fare-free transit pre-COVID. So that's what Boston has done. So there are different variations to this and different time durations. At this point, Connecticut's fare-free program, which began April 1, runs out on December 1. It's not like Richmond's program which is going for three years. So everybody's trying to figure this out. And there are people in the legislature who will try to extend Connecticut's program. And it's interesting to note, this was parallel with breaking the gas tax. So if they keep the break in the gas tax, but bring the bus fare back, I think there will be help.

WSHU: There's a thinking right now that it might be advisable to continue this beyond Dec. 1.

TC: Well, a lot of people think so and you can make a good case for it, because 25 people on a bus as opposed to 25 people driving their own cars means a lot less air pollution and greenhouse gas emission. And a lot less traffic congestion. People riding the bus are doing a favor for everyone else who don't want to help them out.

WSHU: How efficient are the bus routes that we have right now? And how frequent do we have buses? Is it something that's that convenient for someone who's going to work?

TC: Good point. Except for the Connecticut fast track, which is the rapid bus transit system between New Britain and Harford, most of the buses are in regular traffic so they're slow. In my younger days, when I was a jogger, I could sometimes keep up with the buses on Farmington Avenue in Hartford. Here's what we do. There's a study in progress right now to create a number of steps that will make buses faster such as bus lanes and signal prioritization. A bus approaches a red light, it turns green, the bus gets to keep moving, slightly fewer stops. You don't need to stop on every block. So steps like this is an interesting technique called queue jumping, where a bus at a bus stop starts up, the light will hold the traffic and let that bus jump the queue and get going by itself.

WSHU: One of the reasons why we probably haven't thought about buses that much is that many of the people who do take buses in urban areas are not the ones who are lobbying for more service in the halls of the state legislature.

TC: That is a good point but it is changing. There is a Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, but there is no Connecticut commuter bus council, or if there it's a secret. But there are organizations in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford that are advocating for bus riders now. On the Bridgeport Transit District Board of Directors, there are a growing number of advocates for buses because people get the picture. Buses really are an asset and a good thing.

WSHU: Yeah. So is there any likelihood that we'll have an extension of the free rides beyond Dec. 1?

TC: Well, Governor Ned Lamont seems open to it. It's up to the legislature and there are people, you know, at the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford, for example. They are talking to legislators about extending the program. So we'll see. The coin is still flipping in the air so we will see how it comes out.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.