Lawrence eliminates fares on 3 bus routes

Once fanciful idea of free service picks up steam

IN A BID TO BOOST public transit ridership, Lawrence on Monday started allowing residents to ride three downtown bus routes for free.

The city is providing $225,000 to the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority to offset the fare losses from the bus routes for the next two years. The routes – 34, 37, and 85 – are three of the busiest in Lawrence, with stops including Lawrence General Hospital, the technical school, the senior center, the industrial park, and the Essex Street business district. The route of the 37 bus extends slightly into Andover, serving some hotels there.

Fares are currently $1.25 for those who pay with cash and $1 for those using Charlie Cards.

The idea of making bus service free, once dismissed as fanciful, is slowly picking up converts in Massachusetts. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said the inspiration for eliminating the fares on the three bus routes came from Boston City Councilor Michelle  Wu, who is perhaps the leading champion of the idea. She broached the idea on a CommonWealth Codcast last year, and then more formally called for making the MBTA free in January. Her fallback position was making a series of bus routes free.

Lawrence appears to be the first municipality to try eliminating fares, with Rivera saying the city’s investment in public transportation “increases mobility and establishes the ability of Lawrence residents to access every part of our city regardless of income level, race, background, or address.”

The idea has also also gained some traction in Worcester, where the Research Bureau concluded the idea was worth exploring in a report issued in May. Massport, which operates Logan Airport, has also bought into the concept. The agency more than doubled ridership on its Back Bay-Logan Airport shuttle by cutting the fare in half from Back Bay to Boston and eliminating the fare entirely between the airport and Back Bay. Massport has been providing free service from the airport to South Station for years.

Wu, who opposed the MBTA’s decision to increase fares on July 1, said the growing support for the idea of eliminating fares is a sign that “cities are not waiting for the state and the MBTA to take care of our riders.”

Rivera, the chair of the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, and Joseph Costanzo, the administrator of the agency, began exploring the idea of eliminating fares about a year ago. Costanzo said the current fare revenue on the three routes is $94,000 a year. The two officials settled on the city providing that amount plus a cushion, bringing the total to $225,000. The City Council approved taking money from the city’s cash reserves to fund the program.

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