What is the true cost of a bus ride?

Bus services across Connecticut have been fare free since April. With the program set to end this month, there is debate about the future of free bus service.

Ridership did grow during this period, and is now at pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, the program did provide relief for many riders during a very difficult time. However, there are some important matters to consider regarding the future, including the true cost of a bus ride, the importance of fares and other funding for bus operations, the process for changing fares, and equity.

Before the pandemic, the average cost of a bus ride was about one dollar. True, the base fare is more than that, however, there are many discounted, time-based passes available to riders, which drives the average cost of a boarding down. There are day passes, weekly passes, and monthly passes which all provide for a lower cost to board. Additionally, all transit operations in Connecticut accept half fares for seniors, riders with disabilities, and those on Medicaid. In Bridgeport, these riders can have unlimited access to the bus system for $2 a day or $35 a month.

It is true that even with the current discounts, there are some who cannot afford any bus fare. We’ll come back to that.

What becomes of collected fares?

Fare revenue is a critical part of the funding needed of operate Connecticut’s bus services at current levels.

Collected fares are invested back into the provision of service. In this way, bus riders contribute to the operation of the services they are using. The percent of operating expenses paid for by fares is known as the operating ratio, and that number is important.

In Connecticut, operating ratios vary by region. This is due to ridership, fare structure, and the extent to which the operations serve more populated areas. The pre–pandemic fare recovery ratio in Connecticut was about 20%. This means that without fares or the appropriation of an equivalent amount of funding, there would need to be a 20% reduction in services. The statewide total fare revenue was about $40 million — a major part of the state’s bus transit budget, capable of paying for about 364,000 hours of bus service or 62 buses operating 16 hours a day, every day. That’s how important fare revenue is.

How would extending the free fare period be funded?

We know that the current fare holiday is being funded with an infusion of federal operating assistance, which shows no signs of being permanent. Where, then, do we find $40 million for the program’s continuation?

While fares represent about 20% of the total operating expenses, the remainder is derived from a combination of municipal and mostly state investment. State investment in bus operations comes from the Special Transportation Fund (STF).

Prior to the pandemic, there was serious concern about the solvency of the STF. At that time, Greater Bridgeport Transit was facing a very real threat of a 15% reduction in state investment which was only narrowly averted. In 2018, the STF Lockbox ballot measure was passed, ensuring that all funding deposited into the STF would be used for transportation projects only.

One major source of funding for the STF is the gasoline tax, which, along with bus fares, was suspended in April at a reported cost of $30 million per month. It is difficult to ascertain the long term health of the STF today. However, we should be concerned about the fund’s long term ability to sustain the state’s current mass transit operations, both bus and rail, even with the fares in place.

It is important for advocates of permanent free fares to understand fully the ability of the state to fund such a program in perpetuity.

Public vetting of fares and equity

During the years that I have worked in transit service in Connecticut, I have attended my fair share public hearings — riders bring a unique perspective and understanding of the service needs in their communities. In addition, the public vetting of any fare changes is required by the U.S. Department of Transportation for agencies using federal funding. Input from the public related to bus service is vital to creating meaningful change.

What is the best use of new investment from a rider’s perspective?

Clearly there are some who cannot afford to pay bus fare. There are also some who can and who would prefer new investment to expand and improve current services. When we consider the continuation of the fare free program, or any form of fare changes designed to remove barriers for riders, we will need to ensure a sustainable funding stream, use rider input to inform our decisions, ensure a balance between service improvement and expansion, and use equity (need) to target such programs.

Let’s assume that the state, or some other entity, has the $40 million to continue the fare free program. Many would likely support this. However, there may be other riders who would prefer that the new funding be used for the expansion of service.

There are currently bus routes in the state where buses are often full and have to pass by waiting riders. Do these riders want free fares or do they want expanded bus service? Such new investment in the state’s bus service would be a transit renaissance with improved frequency and reliability, extended service spans, new service designs to meet the unique challenges of rural and late-night mobility, new rail connections, and new geographic coverage, to name a few.

Free fares are not a choice if other options are not considered. The real question is: what is the best use of new investment from a rider’s perspective?

Doug Holcomb is General Manager of Greater Bridgeport Transit.