The state’s 15 regional transit authorities are offering free fares this holiday season, thanks in part to a $2.5 million MassDOT grant program meant to promote public transportation ridership across Massachusetts.
Officials at the local agencies said they hope the state “Try Transit” program will get more people out of their cars and onto buses to commute — with the goals of cutting down traffic, helping the environment, and easing the financial hardship brought on by inflation and the lingering impact of the pandemic.
“If a person would normally spend $30 [to] 50 a month on public transportation, not having to pay that could make a real difference when buying a present, or paying a heating bill,” said Jim Nee, the administrator of the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority, which serves more than a dozen communities near Framingham.
The free fare grant money, which was included in the state’s fiscal 2023 budget, will be divided among the local public transit services in places like Brockton; Cape Cod and the Worcester area; and clusters of suburban communities, including the cities and towns west of Boston.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody was able to participate, and that there was no time, money, or energy wasted,” said Michael J. Lambert, who leads Brockton Area Transit Authority.
The program does not include the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which is by far the largest transit agency in the state and operates bus, subway, and Commuter Rail service in Boston and across the region.
The agency does offer free fares on some bus lines, after Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and MBTA general manager Steve Poftak reached an agreement to offer free bus service on the MBTA’s 23, 28, and 29 routes in Roxbury and Mattapan earlier this year.
Wu, fellow elected leaders, and other advocates have long called for free fares on public transportation. Attorney General Maura Healey, who will be sworn in as governor next year, has also called for “a pathway to fare free buses” throughout the state.
In February, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, which serves 16 communities, announced it was making all of its buses free for two years.
“We’re allowing people to not have to choose between basic necessities and getting to work,” said state Representative Tram Nguyen at the time.
Jarred Johnson, executive director of Transit Matters, hailed the free fare program as a “great idea” and pointed to the success of eliminating fees for transit riders in the Merrimack Valley and Worcester.
“I do hope the Healey Administration continues providing funding free fares for the RTAs and looks at how we can dramatically increase their funding,” Johnson said. “Car-free or car-light living shouldn’t only be for people” living near Boston.
At the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, which hasn’t charged fares since the start of the pandemic, officials are looking forward to seeing free fare service offered to more riders across the state through the holiday program, according to Jamie Winters, the agency’s marketing and communications manager.
The Worcester-area agency serves about three dozen communities in central Massachusetts, and has relied on funding sources, including pandemic relief aid to keep its fares free, she said.
“It’s one small thing that we can do to support those that need to get around,” Winters said.
This holiday season, the specifics of the free fare program vary with each regional transit agency.
At the Brockton Area Transit Authority, for example, officials will offer free service seven days a week starting on Black Friday, through New Year’s Eve, according to Lambert.
On the BAT, the average customer pays $1 per trip, according to Lambert. By temporarily eliminating the fares, he said they hope to grow the agency’s ridership by as much as 10 percent.
Tom Cahir, who leads the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, said the organization will eliminate fares on Saturdays during the holiday season using its share of the state grant. It already offers free transit trips on Fridays, and seniors are able to ride free on Wednesdays. The agency serves 15 communities on the Cape, he said.
“People can obviously use this for their shopping needs and getting to work and reducing the number of vehicles on the road,” Cahir said.
Officials warned that free service can’t continue indefinitely without a permanent funding source.
Nee, with the MetroWest transit agency, said it hasn’t been charging fees while it waits for a technology upgrade for its fare collection system. About 10 percent of its service is paid directly by fares, he said, and the agency will resume collecting them early next year.
Managers of the regional transit agencies are hoping for an increase in the state’s share of funding to support their operating costs, according to Nee.
“We understand that the MBTA needs the lion’s share of public transit funds,” Nee said, “but it sure would be nice to get a slightly bigger piece of the crumbs left behind.”
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.