The Implications of a Fare-Free WRTA

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA), like many bus systems, suffers from low and declining ridership. There is research and evidence from other cities that going fare-free – not merely lowering fares, but eliminating them entirely – is perhaps the most effective ridership-boosting tool available to bus systems. While it may seem like an unrealistic idea, the WRTA collected only around $3 million in fares last year (14 percent of its operating budget), and the cost would be mitigated by eliminating the costs of fare collection. While high fares are sometimes presented as a necessity to raise revenue, the last fare hike in 2017 preceded two straight fiscal years of declining farebox revenue. Important metrics, like per-passenger cost, would improve if ridership increases, making the $2 million to $3 million it would take to eliminate fares cost-efficient. Operationally, going fare-free eliminates slow cash payments at the farebox, and allows the use of both bus doors, speeding up the boarding process. The Research Bureau believes that increasing the number of people who ride the bus is important for efficiency and city livability, and decision makers in Worcester and the surrounding towns served by the bus system should give serious consideration to finding funding to eliminate fare collection as a function of the WRTA.


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