A passenger waits to get on the bus on Main Street in Hartford. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Over a year ago, I penned an op-ed regarding the state of public transportation in Connecticut in response to an encounter with the Connecticut public transportation system. In the original draft, I suggested the idea of making transportation in Connecticut free at the point of entry.

This idea came from a trip to Hartford with my colleague Justin Farmer (Hamden Legislative Council D-5) and the current U-Pass program that provides free service for full-time students of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. Unaware of incoming drastic changes to public transit in Connecticut, I wrote an op-ed, ambitiously envisioning what a universal UPass system could look like.

Abdul Osmanu

Not too far off from my original vision, on March 23, 2022, the General Assembly, along with Gov. Ned Lamont (D) passed an adjustment to the fiscal year 2023 budget that included bus fare suspension. This suspension was extended several times until March 31, 2023 as the program has now ended.

Seeing how free bus ridership aided those unable to bear the financially burdensome nature of owning a car as well as ridership surging back to its pre-pandemic numbers, in some cases eclipsing them, it remains likely we’ll see continued efforts to reinstate fare suspension. 

State officials estimate the State officials estimate the fare-free program cost $8 million to run when suspended for three months and less than $20 million when extended for five months. Even as this visionary experiment is over, it leaves it clear that the time is now to push the State of Connecticut to actualize this transformational vision.

The state has an opportunity to be a leader in transit equity, take crucial steps towards expanded non-car modes of transit — all while providing a blueprint for other states. Amidst economic uncertainty and record-high costs associated with obtaining and maintaining a car, states across the country should follow suit and capitalize on the opportunity to eliminate fares in aid of communities struggling to survive in our car-centric society. Public transportation is a public good and should be invested in a manner that affirms such and takes mass movement.

While I was finishing the original piece, Gov. Ned Lamont launched the CTpass program. The program aims to give individuals who are part of eligible organizations access to public transit services at a reduced cost or for free. Coupled with the program’s success hinging on qualifying organizations taking the initiative to work with the CTDOT I’m left wondering, does this well-intentioned program fall short of what we can do as a state? As the program unfolds in the aftermath of the suspension of fares it remains to be seen what CTPass or Go CT can accomplish that fare suspension hasn’t done, if not better than the aforementioned programs. The past few months have proven we can and must do better than CTpass or GoCT as a state. 

Countless op-eds and cases have been pled by individuals across the state, admitting that despite the financial decisions likely to be made along with the potential suspension of fares, it remains worthwhile to pursue. These matters are exacerbated as many of our most underserved communities lack consistent, reliable access to transportation that opens an avenue for economic opportunity.

This, alongside corresponding data, suggests that the frequency and expansion of routes must be strongly considered to maximize the impact of any transportation policy to come. In the Greater New Haven area, 35% of the workforce without a car are unemployed, compared to just 10% who own a car. Paired with the equally jarring statistic that shows the average individual living in Greater New Haven can only reach 27 percent of jobs in the region using public transit, the disserving of car-less community members becomes painstakingly clear. 

In thinking of the lives that can be changed through permanently suspending fares and pushing to provide affordable, non-car modes of transportation, I think about those who are currently most disadvantaged by our transit system. With fare-free transit, we have the opportunity to aid our most cost-burdened community members and use public transportation as one of many tools to uplift residents across the state.

As of now, we have communities living in destitute and devastating conditions, with no proper place to turn to diffuse their economic and societal anxieties — communities living in constant strife where clearing your head is denied through lack of viable transportation. We trap people under societal and economic stress, leaving them with few viable ways to escape their conditions.

“So now, you back in the trap. Go’n’ and marinate on that for a minute.” — Big Boi of OutKast, SpottieOttieDopaliscious

It would be negligent to not mention the rough road to creating an efficient transportation system beyond the many challenges to permanently suspending transportation fares. The exorbitant cost of transit infrastructure, the necessity to work with regional, quasi-public, and national partners, and the work needed to combat pejorative narratives surrounding public transit (as four out of five Connecticut adults drive to work) present themselves as significant challenges to be faced.

The challenges become less weighty when observing the U-Pass, CTpass, and Go CT programs and comparing the ongoing free transit experiment with cities like Kansas City and Corvallis, Oregon. Transforming an outdated transit system is no small feat. However, the opportunity to remodel our society and its relationship to public transportation is one we must not pass up.

From an all-encompassing, holistic standpoint, the return on investment in investing in our public transit system dwarfs highway spending. This proposal is not utopian in the least bit, it is quite simply the reality of what needs to be done by states, cities, and inner-ring suburbs looking to survive in a 21st-century society where irreversible climate catastrophe inches closer with every moment of inaction.

Though not directly dealing with route expansion, fare-free transit serves as a visionary, stellar first step towards the transformation of public transportation in Connecticut. What remains is the political will alongside the will of the community to undertake a radical transformation of our transit system to address equity, environment, and promote economic opportunity that uplifts all.

Abdul Osmanu is a Councilman in Hamden.