PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island’s busiest bus route, which runs from Pawtucket to Cranston, accounting for half of the state’s bus riders, is about to become fare-free.
The state House of Representatives included $2.5 million in the state budget for a year-long pilot program that will eliminate fares on the “R” line, beginning Sept. 1. And the state Senate passed the budget on Thursday night.
Earlier Thursday, advocates and legislative sponsors gathered at the Kennedy Plaza bus hub, saying they are confident the pilot will prove that it’s worth eliminating fares on all Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus routes. They said Rhode Island would be joining a national trend toward eliminating fares for public transportation.
“We know from the experience of other communities that free-fare arrangements boost ridership,” said Senator Meghan E. Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat who introduced free-fare legislation. “Boston has seen an increase of nearly 30 percent in ridership across its free-fare lines, and this is incredibly promising for Rhode Island, as well.”
In December, the Boston City Council approved $8 million from that city’s federal COVID-19 relief funds to eliminate fares on three Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus lines. That pilot program, championed by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, will reimburse the MBTA for fares on buses that run through Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury for two years.
Kallman noted the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority also started a free-ride program in Central Falls in March, and she said it’s showing “how transformative free and easy transit access can be for a community.”
“Scrapping the bus fare would be a windfall to many of the families who spend a good part of their income on transportation,” she said. “I believe that residents should be able to move freely around this state, regardless of income bracket.”
The free bus routes are particularly helpful with gas prices so high, she said. On Thursday, the average price of gas in Rhode Island stood at $4.94 per gallon, according to AAA.
Kallman said the free bus program would also help Rhode Island reach the goals of the Act on Climate, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.
“Public transportation reduces carbon emissions, and it’s a critical part of our action on climate,” she said. “It makes our neighborhoods cleaner and healthier.”
Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat who sponsored free-fare legislation, described the issue as a matter of “racial and social justice.”
“We know that low-income [people] and people of color use public transportation up to twice as frequently as white Americans,” she said. “One of the most significant barriers to equitable transportation is cost. Removing that barrier ensures that everyone — regardless of race, ethnicity, or class — has a safe way to get to work or school, and to access critical services like health care or food.”
Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, emphasized that the budget will make trips free for half the people who use the statewide bus system. “This is an incredibly important opportunity not just for working people across Rhode Island that I represent, but the entire state of Rhode Island,” he said.
Plus, the program will help Rhode Island make progress in “cleaning up our environment,” he said.
“The next step is that once we demonstrate that this works — and we will demonstrate that it works — we are going to make the entire RIPTA system free,” Crowley said. “We are going to make sure that every working class person in the state of Rhode Island knows that RIPTA is a positive alternative to car transportation.”
The state budget calls for RIPTA to track ridership on the “R” line and submit a report to General Assembly leaders and the governor by March 1, 2024.