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WRTA Board Approved Fare-Free Transit through June 2025

By Tom Marino | April 18, 2024
Last Updated: April 18, 2024

WORCESTER – The Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) Advisory Board voted unanimously on Thursday morning to continue its fare free program through June 2025. The board voted to approve the program last year through June 2024.

WRTA buses became fare-free in 2020, during the covid-19 pandemic, although there was advocacy for the program in prior years. Thursday’s vote extends the program into its fifth year.

According to a 2019 report by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, in FY 2019, WRTA farebox revenue fell to just over $3 million, the lowest level since 2010. That revenue accounted for about 14 percent of the WRTA budget. In an update to its 2019 report in 2020, the research bureau found that in fiscal year 2019, fares collected fell again to under $3 million, covering just eight percent of its budget. They also found that the WRTA spent about $850,000 for the infrastructure to collect and process rider fees.

The WRTA is primarily funded by a mix of state assistance (47 percent in FY 2020) and federal funding (24 percent in FY 2020).

In FY 2016, there were over four million riders on the WRTA. During 2019, that fell to just over three million. In FY 2020, which ended on June 30 2020 and included about four months of the pandemic, ridership fell to just over 2.5 million.

Overall ridership across the 15 public transit authorities in Massachusetts in FY 2023 remained below pre-pandemic levels by over 20 percent. Just three authorities had more riders in FY 2023 than pre-pandemic levels. The WRTA is one of those with increases, with ridership up from prior to the pandemic by about 30 percent. One of the other two with ridership exceeding pre-pandemic levels is the Merrimack Valley Transit Authority. It is also fare-free.

The WRTA Advisory Board, which includes representatives from all 37 municipalities served by the WRTA, overwhelmingly supports fare-free. However, federal pandemic assistance funding will soon become exhausted or reach deadlines. For example, federal rules required local governments to have obligated American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds by Dec. 31, 2024 and spend the funds by Dec. 31, 2026. ARPA allocated $8.7 billion to Massachusetts, which included $5.3 billion for state government and $3.4 billion for local governments. According to the City of Worcester website, the city received $146.6 million.

How the end of these programs will affect state and local budgets for a range of programs, including the future of fare-free beyond FY 2025, ending June 30, 2025, is not clear.

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