If you live anywhere that buses go, or you take the bus yourself, you know that bus fares are coming back on April 1. It’s hard to miss: they’re advertising it on the destination signs on the front of the bus that usually tell you where the bus is going.
That means that people who depend on the bus are going to need to find an extra $15-$30 dollars a month, at the very least, so they can get around. Because the people who rely on public transit are disproportionately poor, this is in essence the state taking money out of the pockets of the people who need it most.
What a cruel April Fools’ joke. There’s no reason this had to happen.
The reason we had an April 1 deadline in the first place was because of limits the federal Department of Transportation put on pilot projects like this one. They do this to keep states from hanging out in the middle ground forever, forcing them to either make a pilot project a real thing or drop it altogether. In Connecticut, unfortunately, this requires the legislature to do something.
And they have not.
A bill that would have done the bare minimum of requiring a fare-equity study to evaluate whether free bus fares are worth it died last week; the Transportation Committee reached its deadline without voting on it.
So what happened? Why did this very preliminary bill not even merit a vote?
The most charitable interpretation is that the committee was at least partially swayed by testimony from transit leaders such as Douglas Holcomb, general manager of Greater Bridgeport Transit, who encouraged the state to take a longer and more considered look at the bus system, and how best to use dollars that might be spent on free fares. This was the upshot of an article that appeared in The Atlantic a few months ago, as well: urban infrastructure, including transit, is desperately in need of major fixes that would be put off by spending money on free fares.
Maybe, then, the legislature would rather go back and take everything into account before making smart, serious investments in the bus system. I’d love to believe that, but if this is what they’re planning on doing, they have been very quiet about it.
It could be that they want to study the issue of how to make bus service better before doing anything. Except the issue has been studied. It’s been studied again and again and again. All of these studies have excellent ideas to improve transit, especially on high-traffic routes, but so far the legislature hasn’t moved to fund any of them.
If the legislature is being asked to choose between free fares and better bus service, it seems that they have chosen “neither.”
There are a lot of good reasons to keep buses fare-free, mind you. Fare collection slows down bus travel, for example, and a complex fare system can be a turn-off for new riders. Ridership has grown under the fare-free program, and would likely fall again once the program ends.
Getting rid of fares isn’t just about transportation policy, though; it’s part of broader anti-poverty and environmental goals. Eliminating fares is one of the easiest ways of putting money back into the pockets of people who need it most, and who rely on public transit to get to work, school, shopping, and more. It also encourages more people who may already have cars to ride, which keeps traffic off the highways and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
We shouldn’t have to choose between keeping bus rides free and creating a better bus system. The former can and should be an integral part of the latter. Connecticut needs to make bus and train transportation a real priority instead of the afterthought it usually seems to be.
The failure to advance this bill is disappointing. It speaks not of caution and preparation for a real overhaul of the bus system, but indifference. Legislative leaders need to find a way to fund this study, such as through the budget implementer bill, and move the permanent removal of fares forward.
In the meantime, fares start again on April 1. What a shame.