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New Year, No Fares: Beacon Hill Bankrolls Dozens of Free Bus Routes Statewide

6:11 AM EST on January 5, 2024

The WRTA’s downtown bus hub, next to Worcester’s Union Station.

The state budget that lawmakers passed last summer is bankrolling a major expansion in popular fare-free bus routes across the entire Commonwealth this winter.

As we reported last summer, the new state budget gave the state's Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) – the transit operators that serve areas of the Commonwealth outside of the MBTA service area – a major increase in state funding.

RTAs this year are getting an additional $90 million in state funding from new revenue that the state is collecting from a newly-enacted income tax on high-income households. That additional funding nearly doubles the state's financial support to the RTAs this year compared to the 2023 budget.

Lawmakers in the State House stipulated that $15 million of that new funding "shall be expended on grants for fare free pilot programs to be administered by the regional transit authorities."

Those grants are now on their way to the RTAs, and they're financing new fare-free programs across the Commonwealth. Many of the programs took effect with the start of the new year:

  • In Brockton, Brockton Area Transit (BAT) fixed-route buses have been operating fare-free since December 1, and will continue to do so until May 31st with a $1.4 million grant. "This grant-funded program will help introduce Greater Brockton’s residents and visitors to our newly expanded weekend service, while offering our current customers some important financial relief,” said BAT Administrator Michael J. Lambert in a press statement.
  • The Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (MART), which operates in the Leominster-Fitchburg-Gardner region north of Worcester, also started a six-month suspension of fares on all of its bus routes on January 1 with a $300,000 grant from the state.
  • MeVa, serving Lawrence, Haverhill, and several other cities along the Merrimack River, received a $1.8 million grant to extend its existing fare-free program for six more months.
  • The MetroWest RTA, based in Framingham with service to Natick and Marlborough, won a $124,000 grant to provide three months of fare-free service this winter, from January 1 until the end of March.
  • In the Connecticut River Valley, the PVTA, which serves Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, Northampton, and Amherst, received $3.1 million from MassDOT to offer several fare-free deals to segments of their customer base. PVTA was running fare-free service to everyone for the holiday season, between the end of November and December 31st. As of the new year, they're resuming fare collection on weekdays, but weekend rides will still be fare-free. Also with the new year, PVTA has started offering fare-free after-school service for students under 18, after 3 p.m. And according to MassDOT, the PVTA is also planning another period of completely fare-free service during the summer months, when ridership is typically lower without colleges in session).
  • The Southeastern RTA in Fall River and New Bedford received $1.4 million to suspend fare collection for six months, from the new year until the end of June.
  • The Martha's Vineyard Transit Authority received $289,000 to suspend fares from Thanksgiving 2023 until the end of March.
  • And finally, the Worcester RTA, which has distinguished itself with the longest-running fare-free transit network in the United States, received $2 million from the state budget to help continue fare-free service through the end of June (and they also have a spiffy new website).

As we reported last April, the WRTA's governing board had already committed the agency to fare-free operations through June 2024, but the state's support puts the agency's budget on more solid financial footing.

In addition to the programs listed above, several other RTAs received grants to roll out fare-free service later in the year.

Nantucket's RTA plans to suspend fare collection for six months starting in April, and the Berkshire RTA, which suspended fare collection during December, plans to try it again in June and July, according to MassDOT.

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