A bus driver waits to leave on Main Street in Hartford. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Original reporting by Tom Condon, Jessica Bravo and Nicole McIsaac. Compiled by Nicole McIsaac.

Connecticut introduced a fare-free bus program on April 1, allowing residents throughout the state to save money on bus fares and use it toward other expenses.

The program has received favorable reviews from riders, who have been slowly coming back since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent mass transit ridership numbers plummeting.

Officials say bus ridership dropped by about 50% in the depth of the pandemic, while rail ridership dropped by more than 90%.

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 while there are now other inducements to use transit, such as high gas prices, free fares are helping bring more people back to the buses.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is CT’s free bus fare program, exactly?

As part of the gasoline tax holiday relief package approved by state lawmakers earlier this year, riders on CT Transit buses have not had to pay fares since April 1.

While CT Transit does not serve the entire state, it is the largest of the state’s patchwork of transit networks, carrying about 80% of the state’s bus passengers.

CT Transit runs the bus systems in Waterbury, New Britain, Bristol, Meriden and Wallingford as well as Hartford, New Haven and Stamford.

How is the fare-free program affecting CT bus ridership?

The numbers indicate the fare-free program has drawn more riders to the buses.

When the free fare program began, bus ridership was back to 70-75% of pre-COVID levels in Hartford, New Haven and Stamford, officials estimate.

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.

In August, ridership in the three cities exceeded pre-COVID levels for the first time, reaching 103% of passenger trips recorded in August 2019, according to Josh Morgan, spokesperson of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation.

Officials say they will gauge the program’s effectiveness at the end of the year. 

How much does CT’s free bus fare program cost?

State officials initially estimated it would cost about $8 million to waive bus fares for three months and said the revenue lost could be covered by unused federal pandemic relief aid.

The program was later extended for an additional five months, at which time Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration estimated it would cost less than $20 million in total.

When does CT’s free bus fare program end?

The program is currently set to expire on Dec. 1.

Advocates are pushing to make the program permanent — or at least extend it — but key state and regional governing officials have not taken a position yet.

A bus arrives at a station on Main Street in Hartford. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Are officials considering other changes to CT’s bus systems?

Yes. The Capitol Region Council of Governments and state transit officials are nearing completion of a study, called Metro Hartford Rapid Routes, to improve the speed and reliability of bus service.

The study proposes a number of improvements for CT Transit:

  • Transit signal priority
  • Bus lanes
  • Stop optimization
  • High quality stops
  • Level boarding

The improvements estimate 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%

Notably, the study does not mention the fare-free program, and CRCOG has not taken a position on it.

What is the timeline for the Metro Hartford Rapid Routes?

The study documents are expected to be final and approved in September. CRCOG then will work with the state Department of Transportation to fund and implement the project.

The capital cost of the plan is an estimated $36.4 million, which could come from federal grants. The project could move forward one route at a time.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify the scope of the ridership data provided by the state Department of Transportation.

CT Mirror Explains

Finding answers to big questions in Connecticut. CT Mirror Explains is an ongoing effort to distill our wide-ranging reporting on Connecticut topics into a "what you need to know" format.