IN LATE MAY, Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan, whose city has been hit hard by the COVID pandemic, launched an effort to aid the reopening as restrictions were lifted and businesses looked for ways to get back on track. Under the “Brockton Open For Business” initiative, city staffers are reaching out to businesses to see how city government might help, and Sullivan is looking to streamline regulatory hurdles that can bog down the permitting process.
Now, the city is adding a new element to the effort, one also aimed at reviving ridership on its local transit system: Free weekend bus fares through the summer on all Brockton Area Transit routes.
Sullivan, who as mayor chairs the transit system’s board, suggested the free-fare service at a recent board meeting, and it won unanimous approval.
“I just said, listen, it’s going to benefit Brockton and all the neighboring communities,” Sullivan said in an interview. He said it seemed like a good way to “piggy-back” on the business initiative already underway.
Brockton joins a growing movement of communities experimenting with free transit fares. In 2019, Lawrence launched a two-year experiment of free fares on three of its bus authority’s busiest routes. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority, like a number of other systems, waived fares on its buses during the height of the pandemic, but it maintained the free-fare structure while other systems returned to collecting payments from passengers. Last month, the authority’s board voted to use federal pandemic relief funding to continue the free-fare service through the end of the year.
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu was one of the first officials in the state to raise the idea of free transit fares — an idea that perhaps seemed far-fetched three years ago when she began talking about it, but has now gained considerable traction. Acting Mayor Kim Janey said she’s working with T officials on a plan to waive fares on the Route 28 bus that runs from Mattapan Square to Nubian Square.
Like Worcester, Brockton is tapping into federal relief funds to cover the cost of waiving fares. The effort, which is scheduled to last through Labor Day weekend, will cost $26,500 in lost farebox revenue. That amount will easily be covered by money the agency received from Washington, said Michael Lambert, administrator of the Brockton transit agency. Fares are $1.50 on the bus routes in Brockton, $2.25 for the trip to Ashmont.
Sullivan pitched the idea as a way “not only as a means to boost that initiative but to boost our ridership,” said Lambert.
Ridership has fallen in half since the pandemic, Lambert said. The bus system operates 11 routes in Brockton and three intercity routes with services to Stoughton, Rockland, and Boston. The Boston route, which brings riders to Ashmont Station on the MBTA’s Red Line in Dorchester, is by far the transit agency’s busiest route, with 4,000 riders served on an average day before the pandemic, a number that has fallen to about 2,000 riders per day.
“We have no idea when it will come back,” said Lambert.
City leaders and transit officials hope the free weekend bus service will help generate more economic activity around Brockton — spurring everything from people venturing out for a haircut to a shopping trip, said Sullivan.
The effort has only been underway for two weekends so what sort of impact it might ultimately have on commerce or ridership is unclear. But Lambert said ridership was up about 10 percent last Sunday over usual levels seen in recent weeks.
Although the free-fare initiative is scheduled to end in early September, Sullivan said he’s open to ideas for how it could be extended or made permanent. “We’re willing to look at any and all options,” he said. “Coming out of COVID, I think everything is on the table.”