Worcester free bus service has increased employee retention; supporters hope WRTA extends it

Worcester free bus service has increased employee retention; supporters hope WRTA extends it

Federal funds from the CARES Act have been used to support the system while fares are suspended.
March 10, 2023

By Kiernan Dunlop, masslive.com

WORCESTER, MASS. — As a talent acquisition coordinator for FedEx, Sydney Ocran said one of the major reasons his company loses employees is because they don’t have an affordable way to get to work.

Since the Worcester Regional Transit Authority began offering fare-free service in March 2020, Ocran said the number of employees who call out at FedEx locations in the area have been tremendously reduced and retention numbers have skyrocketed.

Ocran was speaking at an event Friday promoting the continuation of fare-free service hosted by the Worcester Zero Fare Coalition and the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The WRTA board has voted to extend the fare-free service since it started, with the latest vote extending the service to June 2023.

Providing the free service has meant workers don’t have to chose between spending money to get to work or putting food on the table, Ocran said. He himself experienced having to walk to work for two weeks when he first came to Worcester because he had to wait until he got his first paycheck to be able to afford to take the bus.

Gary Rosen, chair of the board, told MassLive in September 2022 that groups like Worcester Zero Fare Coalition have been pushing the board to extend the fare-free service for another three years, but the board decided on six months to give it a chance to look at all its revenue sources and expenses and make decisions about future fare policies in the context of the budget.

The Worcester Regional Research Bureau released a report Friday detailing where the revenue for the WRTA comes from and how much is necessary to keep bus service free.

The commonwealth provides the largest chunk of revenue, covering more than 47% of its $29,254,019 in revenue in fiscal 2022, followed by 32.5% in federal assistance and 19.34% in community assessments.

Fares paid for by riders brought in between $3 million and $4 million from 2013 to 2019, according to Joshua Boucher, a research associate with WRRB, so WRTA needs to replace that money if it wants to maintain the service it currently has.

Boucher pointed out that the amount the WRTA would need to make up from lost fares doesn’t include how much it costs to collect and otherwise deal with the fares, which is about $850,000.

Federal funds from the CARES Act have been used to support the system while fares are suspended. Rosen has said in the past the CARES Act money is plentiful right now, but it’s “not forever money.” The money is also being used to fund other things, like a new contract for drivers.

The WRRB report states that while the CARES Act money is not a permanent solution, the around $22 million of it that remains could be used in the short term.

During Friday’s event, Boucher proposed options for covering the loss of revenues from fares, including increased state assistance, voluntary local contributions, federal assistance and local partnerships.

The state, since it already provided the majority of funding for the transit service, is the most likely source of new and greater funding, according to Boucher, who mentioned an existing piece of legislation that’s been presented to increase the funding for regional transit authorities to $150 million.

Boucher also mentioned the possibility of the WRTA partnering with local employers, universities and others who are interested in helping replace the fare revenue.

Alex Guardiola, vice president of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he hears from members repeatedly that they need a better system to get their employees to and from work. He said the chamber supports continuing fare-free service.

Sen. Robyn Kennedy, who represents the 1st Worcester District, said she’s been talking to the board about what it will take to have reliable, consistent service for the WRTA system.

She also called for regional equity in funding, noting that the MBTA is receiving $181 million. “We’re not paying the fair share in our region simply to predominantly fund Boston usage,” Kennedy argued, referring to what Central Massachusetts pays in tolls.

Andy Saltzberg, of the Worcester Zero Fare Coalition, said he suspects the board will vote in the next couple of months on whether to extend the fare-free system.

“If we lose this fare cancellation it would not only make getting a fare-free permanent system so much harder, it would also make service expansion so much harder,” Saltzberg said.

Fare-free service has increased WRTA ridership, according to the WRRB, which plans to produce a ridership-specific report with more data surrounding it.

“The WRTA did experience a larger percentage gain of ridership than its peers, indicating that fare-free may have played an important role in ridership recovery,” the WRRB report read.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC

Visit masslive.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sign up for Transit Intelligence

News and commentary in public transportation, and the latest job postings and solicitations.

Daily News Briefing