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Gateway Cities are ideal proving ground for free fares

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority went fare-free at the start of the pandemic and recently expanded the experiment for another year.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

David Scharfenberg’s article “Can Mayor Wu really make the T free?” (Ideas, Jan. 9) highlighted the benefits and challenges of such a policy for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. However, the pioneering leadership of Gateway Cities such as Lawrence and Worcester suggests that midsize transit systems elsewhere in the state may be the true sweet spot for scaling up fare-free bus programs in Massachusetts.

At MassINC, we believe that the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities are the ideal places to implement zero-fare buses. First, these cities house a large share of the state’s essential workers, low-income seniors, and communities of color — all core transit users.


Second, fares constitute, on average, only 13 percent of the annual budget for regional transit agencies (RTAs), according to data drawn from the Federal Transit Administration. In fiscal 2020, RTA fares represented less than $35 million total statewide (compare this with $545 million for the MBTA).

Third, new polling shows 71 percent support for making public buses free in low-income neighborhoods.

Finally, according to our research, free fares could transform public transportation outside metro Boston by making it easy to use, reducing delays, and increasing ridership by 25 to 40 percent. This is a path to creating more livable, multimodal, and affordable communities across the state.

Andre Leroux

Director, Gateway Hubs Project

Julie Harris

Research fellow

Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth