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After CT bus’s free fares go away, ridership takes a dive

A CT Transit bus heads to downtown New Haven.
Molly Ingram
A CT Transit bus heads to downtown New Haven.

When a bus ride in Connecticut was free, Jonathan Parrilla found himself hopping on public transit in Bridgeport. But he stopped taking the bus a year ago, when the state ended a year-long free fare program for Connecticut buses.

“When I saw that the fares were free, I said: ‘Hell, why not?’” said Parrilla, 33, of Bridgeport. “I have saved a lot of money on gas. ... But now that they are no longer free, it's time to spend a lot of money on gasoline again."

He isn’t the only one.

Federal Transit Administration data shows decreased use of several city bus routes across Connecticut since the fares were reinstated in April 2023.

From March 2023, the last month of free rides, to March 2024, the most recent data published by the Federal Transit Administration, there was a ridership drop of 33% in the CT Transit Stamford Division, 28% in the Hartford Division, 27% in the New Haven Division and 13% in Waterbury.

The FTA tracks “unlinked passenger trips,” which refers to instances where passengers board public transportation vehicles, regardless of how many vehicles they use to complete their journey.

Multiple calls and emails were sent to Connecticut Department of Transportation officials, who did not respond to a request for comment or additional state data.

Sharon Romero, 56, commutes daily to Stratford from Bridgeport. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she spent approximately $80 to $100 per week on public transportation, underscoring the financial strain that many commuters endure.

"When bus fares were free, I felt a relief in my salary; I saved a lot of money because of it," Romero said.

In 2022, during the pandemic, CTDOT implemented a free-fare policy, using federal funds to encourage essential travel and mitigate financial burdens on commuters.

As a result, from April to September 2022, there was a notable bump in bus ridership in the state, according to federal data.

New Haven's ridership increased 37%. Stamford saw a 40% jump. Hartford saw a 52% increase, while Waterbury's ridership rose 28%.

Throughout the rest of 2022 and into early 2023, ridership numbers remained at higher levels.

The reintroduction of fares drew the attention of numerous bus riders, prompting them to form the Transit Riders Union of Connecticut (TRUC) to advocate for the reinstatement of free fares.

Among them was Jay Stange, coordinator of the Transport Hartford Academy Center for Latino Progress, who has been an advocate for public transit riders at the state level. He pointed out that the more people use public transportation, the less carbon monoxide will be emitted by vehicles.

A recent report released by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection highlighted transportation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

"We need more people to ride the bus for ecological reasons and economic reasons too," Stange said. "Public transportation plays a crucial role in reducing carbon emissions and alleviating traffic congestion, while also offering a cost-effective mobility solution for individuals and families."

Stange, along with fellow TRUC members, sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont requesting the reinstatement of free fares on public transport.

Looking ahead, Stange hinted at the possibility of revisiting the request for free fares on buses but emphasized the need for robust infrastructure, reliable schedules, and enhanced amenities to attract and retain riders.

"It is too difficult for an average person to get around with public transport,” Strange said. “Some stops are very far away and for people with disabilities, it is too difficult.”

Ridership dips

Here’s a look at bus ridership across Connecticut from March 2023 to March 2024:

  • Stamford division: 2023: 343,425 unlinked passenger trips; 2024: 229,202 
  • New Haven division: 2023: 670,569; 2024: 490,586 
  • Hartford division: 2023: 1,370,397; 2024: 980,532 
  • Waterbury division: 2023: 164,469; 2024: 141,816 

Source: Federal Transit Administration

Brandon Cortés is a journalism major at Southern Connecticut State University.

CT Community News is a service of the Connecticut Student Journalism Collaborative, an organization sponsored by journalism departments at college and university campuses across the state and supported by local media partners, including WSHU Public Radio.