Daisy Rodriguez of Hartford takes the bus across town for her jobs — full-time on weekdays, part-time on weekends — as a patient care assistant. She was paying $63 for a 31-day bus pass.

But the state’s fare-free bus program, which began on April 1, has been a godsend. She said the money she saves can go towards the higher costs of groceries and other necessities.

She noted that before the program began, “Sometimes you don’t have the money for the bus fare, and you have to walk.”

It’s hard to find a bus rider who doesn’t share her good opinion of the program.

“There’s no question customers are really enjoying it, and benefitting from it,” said Doug Holcomb, general manager of the Greater Bridgeport Transit Authority, which operates bus and related services in the Bridgeport region. “They’re getting a break when inflation is causing other prices to rise.”

The numbers indicate the fare-free program has drawn more riders to the buses. Unlike rail ridership, which dropped by more than 90% in the depth of the pandemic, bus ridership only dropped by about 50%, said Josh Rickman, assistant general manager of HNS Management, Inc., the private contractor that operates the bus service in Hartford, New Haven and Stamford (hence HNS) for CT Transit, which is owned by the state Department of Transportation. 

The state has a quiltwork of transit districts, transit authorities and operators running its bus and paratransit systems. CT Transit is the largest, running the systems in Waterbury, New Britain, Bristol, Meriden and Wallingford as well as Hartford, New Haven and Stamford and carrying about 80% of the state’s bus passengers. 

A primary reason bus ridership didn’t take the precipitous dive that train ridership did is that buses carry a lot of essential workers who cannot work remotely and for whom hundreds of dollars a year for the bus is real money. Rickman praised the DOT for maintaining a “pretty high level of service” to serve the medical personnel, sales people and others who have helped society function during the pandemic. 

By April 1, when the free fare program began, ridership was back to 70-75% of pre-COVID levels in Hartford, New Haven and Stamford, Rickman said. By the end of May, weekday ridership in the three cities reached nearly 90% of pre-COVID levels, with weekend numbers even higher, in part due to additional weekend service.

While there are other inducements to use transit, such as high gas prices, officials think the free fare is helping bring people back to the buses. DOT spokesman Josh Morgan said the department plans to do a “deep dive” into the numbers at the end of the year to gauge the effects of the program. One hope, he said, is that it is encouraging some drivers to leave their cars at home, noting that even a small drop in driving results in cleaner air.

The data the department develops may inform the discussion about whether to continue the fare-free program, something Gov. Ned Lamont is considering. So are officials across the country.

A basic need

Free or reduced-fare programs have been around since at least the 1960s, often as a benefit for seniors, students, military personnel, persons with disabilities or city workers. A few cities were starting fare-free programs before the pandemic struck, and many more joined in when it did. 

It’s now possible to get a free bus ride in Richmond, Kansas City, Albuquerque and Olympia, Wash., among other localities.

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu, a pre-COVID advocate of free public transportation, has begun a pilot program in which three heavily used bus lines that run through predominantly Black neighborhoods will be free for the next two years. She told an interviewer that removing barriers to public transportation is a major step toward climate justice, racial equity and mobility

It’s not terribly hard to make a case for fare-free urban transit. The challenge is how to pay for it. 

Some cities that went fare free have gone back to collecting fares; others have looked for ways to keep their fare-free program going. In Richmond, which went fare-free in March 2020, the Greater Richmond Transit Company was awarded an $8 million state grant, matched by funds from the city and Virginia Commonwealth University, to evaluate and develop the zero-fare program. 

The system surpassed pre-COVID numbers last November. It will stay fare-free for at least another three years. 

Gregory Benson talks to other passengers on the bus. Benson, a direct care at the Youth Challenge of Connecticut Inc., often takes bus and would say hi to the bus driver and some passengers that he knows. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

In Olympia, a small addition to the sales tax is keeping the buses free.

Faced with a budget crunch in 2016, Intercity Transit, which serves four towns around Washington’s capital city with a total population of 200,000, asked residents what kind of public transit they wanted.

“We got 10,000 responses,” said General Manager Ann Freeman-Manzanares in a recent telephone interview. They wanted a good system; reliable, speedy, equitable, efficient, environmentally friendly.

The transit agency then did an analysis and learned that if they deducted the costs of collection, such as new fare scanners and plastic cards, fares were bringing in less than 2% of their net operating revenue. 

In 2018, two-thirds of residents approved a 1.2% boost in the sales tax to pay for transit. They began a zero-fare program as a five-year pilot in January 2020. Ridership jumped 20% in the first month. Alas, the pandemic hit in March, interrupting the experiment. Ridership dropped and some service was reduced; they even introduced a reservation system for a few months, so people would be assured a seat, said Freeman-Manzanares.

Though ridership is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels — Olympia is the state capital, and state workers are still working remotely — riders are trickling back, she said. Because of the COVID interruption, the zero-fare program has been extended for another three years, said Freeman-Manzanares. 

She said the program has a “variety of positives.” For one, it eliminates squabbles over fares, the greatest source of conflict between drivers and passengers. Riders save money and don’t have to worry about forgetting a pass or not carrying cash. The system runs faster.

The zero-fare program “was a breath of fresh air for our staff.” 

Having free transit “improves the livability of a community. It really helps people,” she said, adding that most of the money saved goes back into the local economy.

There was some concern that people with time on their hands would spend the day on the bus. But, said Freeman-Manzanares, the rule is people can ride one route and then must get off. She also said her system, like those here and in many parts of the country, faces the challenge of finding enough drivers.

Freeman-Manzanares, like Michelle Wu, believes transportation is a “basic human need,” one that government should help meet.

“They don’t make you pay at the gate at the library,” she said.

Faster

For transit to be attractive, even if fare-free, it must be frequent, fast, reliable and comfortable. Fast is an issue in Greater Hartford. With the laudable exception of the CT Fastrak dedicated busway from Hartford to New Britain, most bus service in the region would not qualify as “rapid” transit. Buses don’t move any faster than the traffic allows, and heavy congestion can skew the schedules and leave passengers looking longingly down the road, wondering if the bus will ever come. 

But that could change. 

The Capitol Region Council of Governments, or CRCOG, in partnership with state transit officials, is nearing completion of a study, called Metro Hartford Rapid Routes, intended to improve the speed and reliability of bus service in the region’s major transit corridors: Albany Avenue, Farmington Avenue, Franklin Avenue, Main Street and Park Street in Hartford as well as Burnside Avenue in East Hartford.  These core routes carry 65% of the region’s bus passengers.

To speed them up, the study proposes a number of improvements, including:

  • Transit signal priority. This innovation turns a light green a little sooner as a bus approaches or keeps it green a little longer, to make bus service faster. The study proposes signal priority for all signalized intersections on the priority corridors.
  • Bus lanes. These allow buses to move in their own lanes separate from general traffic. These lanes can be in the median, next to the parking line or along the curb, and can be full-time or peak-only. Short sections of bus lanes leading up to or just beyond intersections, called queue jump lanes, will hold traffic to let buses get back on the road more quickly. The study recommends some kind of bus lanes on all the core routes except compact Park Street. 
  • Stop optimization. While each route needs convenient stops, too many can unnecessarily slow the trip. The core routes currently have six to 10 stops per mile; the study recommends about five stops per mile.
  • High quality stops. These are stops that give passengers an attractive and comfortable place to wait for the bus and provide key information such as when their bus will arrive. The study recommends high-quality stops along all the primary routes. In what can be viewed as a commentary on the amenities at some existing stops, transit advocate Tony Cherolis and a neighbor bought a bench for their Wethersfield Avenue stop and had a Hartford artist paint it.
  • Level boarding. This simply means elevating the curb for easier access and egress, which makes the stop a bit faster and is particularly useful to persons with disabilities. 

The study estimates that signal priority can improve route speeds by 8-40%, bus lanes by 12-23%, stop optimization by 2-6% and level boarding by 1%.

Advocacy

Following a public comment period, the CRCOG is seeking the endorsement of the recommendations by Hartford and East Hartford, expected this summer. 

Then the study documents will be made final and approved by CRCOG’s board, expected in September. Then it will be incorporated into core planning documents, said Cara S. Radzins, CRCOG’s transportation deputy. Her agency then will work with the DOT, which as the owner of the system will quarterback the fundraising and implementation of the project. The capital cost of the plan is an estimated $36.4 million, some of which could come from federal grants. 

The project could also move forward one route at a time.

The Rapid Routes plan does not mention the fare-free program, and CRCOG has not taken a position on it. Advocates are beginning to push for extending it past the Dec. 1 expiration date. Bus riders have never had the same level of advocacy as train riders; for example, there is no bus equivalent of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council. But there are advocates, such as the New Haven Coalition for Active Transportation and the Transport Hartford, a project of the Center for Latino Progress, in Hartford.

The latter is headed by Thomas Regan-Lefebvre, who said he is talking with legislators about extending the free fare program. He noted that Lamont estimated the cost at less than $20 million, “not that much money.” He said almost a third of Hartford households don’t own cars and rely on the buses to get to work, often to essential jobs. He said transit use reduces traffic congestion and pollution and said the fare-free program “makes the system work much faster.”

“If there is a gas tax holiday, then there ought to be fare-free buses. You don’t want people who take buses subsidizing people who drive cars.”

This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.

Jessica is CT Mirror's general assignment reporter. She was also our reporting intern for the 2022 legislative session. She is currently a rising senior at Central Connecticut State University pursuing her bachelor’s degree in journalism. She also works at her school’s newspaper, The Recorder, and peer mentors first-year undergraduates at Central. Jessica is a Connecticut native through and through.