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Free fares are over for CT bus riders. Who's to blame?

A bus in downtown Hartford announces the resumption of fares beginning April 1, 2023.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
A bus in downtown Hartford announces the resumption of fares beginning April 1, 2023.

On the first day of April, bus riders in Connecticut returned to an old custom: paying fares. After a year of free rides, CTtransit and other public transit buses ended a yearlong fare-free program originally introduced to expedite boarding during the COVID pandemic and help residents financially during tough economic times.

Why did it end?

Appearing on Connecticut Public’s Where We Live in March, Gov. Lamont said the federal government forced the popular program to expire.

“So the feds — the federal Department of Transportation — comes to us, and this is a little odd to me, and says, ‘You can’t provide free bus service until you do an equity study,’” Lamont said. “So we’re going to do that ‘equity study.’ Maybe it’s something we can revisit, but I wasn’t allowed by federal law to continue it. I wish I could.”

The federal government said that’s only partially correct.

“Setting fares is a local – and in this case, state – decision,” a spokesperson for the US DOT’s Federal Transit Administration said in a statement issued in response to Lamont’s comments. “FTA does not provide clearance or permission to transit agencies to change fares and certainly did not prohibit the Connecticut Department of Transportation from doing so.”

The FTA said that while an equity analysis is required under federal civil rights regulations in order to make such a change last beyond the 12-month pilot period, “this is a routine activity for large transit systems and helps them evaluate whether fare changes will have disparate impacts on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”

Josh Morgan, a spokesperson for the state DOT, said the agency has done such equity analyses in the past for system changes like rerouting, but had not been directed by the Lamont administration or state lawmakers to complete one for the fare-free program.

“I think the trouble with fare-free is, how do you do an analysis on that standpoint, looking at just the fares? Because it wouldn’t be just looking at fares,” Morgan said. “How do you study if there’s going to be any route impacts? How are you going to study any service impacts? So without an actual proposal to say, ‘This is going to be fare-free and this is the resulting ramifications,’ we can’t do a study on that.”

Bills to require such a study have died in committee this legislative session.

Morgan said pre-COVID, fares collected on CTtransit buses totaled about $42 million a year, and that federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act made up for that loss when the buses went fare-free.

But advocates for free transit service point to a projected better-than-$200 million surplus in the state’s Special Transportation Fund they believe could be used to cover that cost and keep the program rolling.

Jay Stange, coordinator of the Transport Hartford Academy, an advocacy group housed within the nonprofit Center for Latino Progress, was one of several dozen signatories to a February letter asking the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee to find a way to keep buses fare-free after the end of the 12-month pilot.

“We wanted the governor and legislative leaders to support using state funding for a program that they thought was good enough to fund with federal grant money,” Stange said.

Stange said the program was good for the state’s economy, advanced Connecticut’s stated climate goal of increasing transit ridership, and provided a “huge equity boost” for communities who rely on transit, often low-income communities of color.

Making buses fare-free, he said, was a quick system-wide transit improvement impacting all riders, but only a small portion of the overall state budget proposal.

In a state budget of $50 billion, Stange said, "$40 or 45 million is a rounding error."

Lawmakers who head the Transportation Committee said it’s not as simple as advocates like Stange make it out to be.

“Without a question, fare-free is a net benefit for everyone,” said state Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who chairs the committee on the House side.

But the state wouldn’t be able to continue it without federal dollars, Lemar said. Losing farebox revenue, he said, would result in cuts to service and reductions in – or the elimination of – other planned transit improvements the STF surplus is currently planned for.

“You’re weighing those policy choices,” Lemar said. “And I think it's remarkably irresponsible to suggest that there's plenty of money to do all of it.”

“Going fare-free compromises everything else,” Lemar said.

Rep. Lemar and Morgan, the DOT spokesperson, said CTtransit riders have indicated they want service improvements more than they want the continuation of free fares.

“What I’m hearing from folks is they want schedule predictability, new buses, improved infrastructure, expanded routes, they want their transit employees to be paid better, and those are the things that we’ve done,” Lemar said.

“That’s really where our focus and priority has been,” Morgan said, noting there’s upwards of $17 million proposed for such improvements in the governor’s current proposed budget.

“There’s no easy answer, right? It’s all about balance,” said Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, chair of the Transportation Committee, and a member of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

“If you invest the money on free fares, what other programming that our residents could benefit from, including our low-income residents, are we foregoing?” Cohen said. She said funding the program would create a “significant hole” in the STF, leaving it in the red a few years from now. She said expansion of fare reductions for certain riders was under consideration.

The governor’s office said CT DOT was currently conducting a “unified fare study,” separate from the equity analysis required for elimination of fares, and that completing that study before launching another would make sense. They also noted transit operating expenses have increased, and echoed Rep. Lemar and Sen. Cohen in saying that continuing free fares would likely result in slashes to services and possibly elimination of proposed expansions.

"When working families had to choose between paying their bills and putting food on the table, temporary free bus service provided meaningful relief. Due to federal law, a temporary fare pilot program is time limited," said Julia Bergman, a Lamont spokesperson, in a statement. “We’re not taking inclusive growth and opportunity off the table this session – and investing in our transportation infrastructure and transit services is a big part of how we get there. The Governor remains committed to working with all stakeholders to increase service and ridership in a way that is accessible and fair to all. That's why he proposed one of the largest expansions of bus service in our state’s history, across all corners of Connecticut."

Hartford advocate Tenaya Taylor, founder of the Nonprofit Accountability Group, said they believed there’s less urgency at the Capitol to continue the fare-free program because its beneficiaries were primarily people of color.

“There should be more urgency, because things that impact Black and brown people affect everyone,” Taylor said. “There are people who won’t be able to go to work the same way, who won’t be able to do their jobs, bring their kids to school. This is going to create a domino effect and not just affect the frontline communities.”

“I know someone who was staying in a homeless shelter at the time, [who] had to wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. to get their kids to school in another city, then come back and make multiple trips,” Taylor said. “She was doing that on CTtransit. And there's no way that she would have survived that spurt of homelessness had she had to pay for the bus.”

Chris Polansky joined Connecticut Public in March 2023 as a general assignment and breaking news reporter based in Hartford. Previously, he’s worked at Utah Public Radio in Logan, Utah, as a general assignment reporter; Lehigh Valley Public Media in Bethlehem, Pa., as an anchor and producer for All Things Considered; and at Public Radio Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., where he both reported and hosted Morning Edition.