LAWRENCE — The last fare collection box on a Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus bore a red “no” symbol as it was removed Monday, ushering in fare-free bus and paratransit service across 16 municipalities in northeastern Massachusetts.
MVRTA administrator Noah Berger joined US representatives Lori Trahan and Seth Moulton and state and local officials at Lawrence’s Buckley Transportation Center, where a crowd erupted in cheers when an MVRTA property manager stood the unneeded fare box on the sidewalk next to the bus. Balloons in the shape of the number “0″ floated nearby.
MVRTA is among a growing number of transit agencies and cities in Massachusetts that are trying fare-free bus service using federal COVID-19 relief funds, including Boston, which will begin reimbursing the MBTA for fares on the 23, 28 and 29 lines on Tuesday.
“I’m about to say something completely radical,” Berger said. “What I’m going to say that’s radical is that we are going fare-free, and that ain’t radical, that’s mainstream.”
At the MVRTA, eliminating fares was an easy sell. The agency had already made three bus lines free to ride in 2019 through funding from the city of Lawrence. Using data showing increased ridership on those three lines, Berger made the case for eliminating fares on all MVRTA bus routes to the agency’s advisory board in December.
The case was simple: The transit agency was receiving just 24 cents from each dollar in fares after factoring in the cost of fare collection, including software maintenance, armored car service, and bus delays related to fare collection. If the agency invested the $157,613 needed to upgrade its fare collection equipment, it would wind up getting back just over 8 cents, Berger told board members, who unanimously approved a two-year fare-free pilot program.
“That’s a clunky, inefficient way to generate revenue,” Berger said Monday. The MVRTA collected around $1.2 million in passenger fares in fiscal year 2020, the latest available figures. The agency had charged between $1.00 and $1.25 per bus ride.
Other transit authorities have made the same calculation. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority first eliminated fares on its bus routes in March 2020 and late last year extended fare-free service through the end of 2022. The Franklin Regional Transit Authority plans to keep its buses fare-free through June.
Trahan, who represents Lawrence, said in an interview last week she hopes more regional transit agencies will give fare-free service a try.
“If this pilot program proves to be successful, and there’s a desire, I’ll happily work to identify funding streams to continue that work,” she said. “We’ll have great case studies to point to.”
On Monday, Trahan heralded the agency’s decision to eliminate fares, calling it a “no-brainer.”
“I can think of no better way for the COVID relief funds ... to be used,” she said.
Before the pandemic, the MVRTA was carrying about 2 million riders each year on its fixed-route buses, but ridership is down about 38 percent, Berger said. He said he will consider the fare-free pilot a success if it boosts ridership, speeds up service, improves on-time performance, and saves more in operating costs than the lost fare revenue. The agency has equipped its buses with automatic passenger counters, he said.
State Representative Tram Nguyen, an Essex Democrat, said that growing up in Lawrence, her family would often have to walk long distances instead of taking the bus to save a dollar.
“We’re allowing people to not have to choose between basic necessities and getting to work,” she said. “This makes sense.”
Boston has already seen some of the benefits from its six-month fare-free pilot on the Route 28 bus. Last week, the MBTA said that eliminating fares since August has reduced wait times by about 20 percent and increased ridership by about 22 percent over similar lines, including about 5 percent of trips that would have otherwise been car trips. Twenty-one percent of riders saved more than $20 per month, but about 66 percent did not save any money because they bought monthly passes or had to transfer to other lines that are not free.
The impacts will be more profound when all buses are fare-free, said Frank Bonet, a member of the MVRTA advisory board and chief of staff to Lawrence’s mayor, Brian DePena.
“This is something Boston is still trying to figure out,” he said. “We beat them to it.”
Bonet hopes at least some MVRTA buses will be able to remain free long after the pilot ends so that the fare boxes are never reinstalled.
“You have to pay for those machines,” he said. “If you can just spend [that] on the future for free ridership, why not? It benefits a lot of people.”
Taylor Dolven can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.