Sunday bus service is here to stay

Sunday bus service is here to stay

The Southeastern Regional Transit Authority is on track to continue offering Sunday bus service permanently, but its fare-free pilot program could end this summer.

Representatives for New Bedford and Fall River say they will vote to keep Sunday buses running when they meet for SRTA’s advisory board meeting on Thursday. The new service was added at the end of January using state assistance, but to keep the new service going past the end of the current budget in June, local governments will have to pitch in more money. 

“It’s been the most transformative service addition we’ve put on in two decades, and we really want to see it continue,” said Shayne Trimbell, SRTA’s director of transit planning.

New Bedford and Fall River contribute the most money to the transit authority, and therefore have the most weighted votes on the board, so the support from both communities is enough to push the measure through, Trimbell said. Some of the smaller towns in SRTA’s service area have also expressed support.

The future is less certain for the “Try Transit” pilot program, which made all of SRTA’s buses free to ride for the first six months of this year. That program was funded by a state grant that expires at the end of June. State senators have set aside more money for more fare-free grants in their version of the next state budget, but there’s no guarantee that the funding will reach the governor’s desk.

Sunday buses bring new costs — and benefits

Annual local contributions to SRTA will have to increase by $1.6 million to fund Sunday buses in the next budget. New Bedford and Fall River officials said they supported the increased costs because residents are using the extra buses.

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“Accessible, equitable public transportation to and from New Bedford on Sundays benefits workers and families as the City continues to attract more visitors and businesses,” said Jennifer Clarke, New Bedford’s SRTA board representative, in a statement.

About 3,500 people ride the bus each Sunday, which is comparable to ridership on holidays, Trimbell said. He added that he expects ridership to increase as people change their work schedules or get word of the new service.

The Audit and Finance Committee of SRTA’s advisory board voted last week to recommend the budget with funding for Sunday service. It’s not a binding recommendation, Trimbell said, but the board almost always accepts the committee’s recommendations.

Officials in Dartmouth, Somerset, and Westport said their towns would also vote to support the measure, or were likely to do so. Officials in Freetown and Acushnet did not respond to requests for comment. Officials in Swansea and Fairhaven said they were in the process of appointing new board representatives, so they were unsure on how they would vote. Mattapoisett Town Administrator Michael Lorenco said his town would recuse itself from the vote because it does not benefit from Sunday buses.

Securing seven-day bus service has long been a priority for riders, advocates said. 

“For the betterment of the people, they should keep it,” said Sabrina Davis, a transit advocate and the organizer of Bus Riders United, an initiative run by the Coalition for Social Justice.

SRTA has received an outpouring of positive feedback from riders since launching Sunday buses, said Trimbell, the SRTA planning director. He said riders have told him that it gives them another day to live their lives — they take the bus to get to work, run errands, visit friends, and go to church.

“When I hear that, to me it negates any of the numbers,” he said. “It is of utmost importance when we talk about matters of equity and social mobility that people have the right to move through their community on any day.”

One recent Sunday afternoon, Jennifer Newton took the bus home from her job at Dunkin’. It saved her the trouble of a 25-minute walk.

“It’s so convenient,” she said. “I’m young, so I can walk, but older people can’t.”

She said the extra service is “absolutely” worth it, even if it costs the city more money.

Free fares are popular, but could soon end

The state Legislature has the power to decide whether SRTA’s free fares can continue.

“People need this,” Davis said. “It burns me out that I pay taxes and I’m wondering why it isn’t going to the people who need it most.”

The state grant that allowed SRTA to eliminate its $1.50 fare will expire in June. Without another state grant, SRTA won’t be able to cover the cost of the program, Trimbell said.

A woman carrying shopping bags approaches a bus at the downtown station in New Bedford. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

The Senate has included $40 million to eliminate fares for local transit authorities in its budget for fiscal year 2025, which starts in July. The measure is funded by the new so-called millionaires tax.

But the House’s version of the budget doesn’t have the same line item. Legislators will decide whether to include the funding when they reconcile the two chambers’ bills in the next step of the budget process.

State Sen. Mark Montigny, who represents New Bedford, strongly supports the Senate’s plan, his spokesperson said. Rep. Bill Straus, who represents the towns east of New Bedford and chairs the transportation committee, did not respond to requests for comment.

New Bedford would welcome state funding to continue the fare-free program, said Clarke, the city’s SRTA representative. The city can’t provide the funding for it because state law limits how much cities and towns can increase their contribution to local transit authorities each year, she explained.

A survey found that 60% of South Coast residents support continuing free fares. The MassINC Polling Group collected responses from 500 residents in SRTA’s service area in March.

Most respondents also said they supported funding free fares with the millionaires tax. The vast majority of respondents had never ridden the bus, but the top reason for supporting free fares was to help low-income residents without cars, the poll found.

The results show that people can see the value of free fares to the larger community, even if they don’t benefit directly, Trimbell said.

As expected, the fare-free pilot has increased ridership, he said. He and Davis previously predicted that the lowest income riders would take more trips, which they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.

“It is absolutely life-changing,” he said. “The small difference of a dollar fifty, or having a bus on a Sunday, really changes the quality of life someone can live.”

Some riders don’t appreciate that buses are more crowded and that the demand-response service for disabled people takes longer, he said, but SRTA is hesitant to add capacity to support a pilot that could end in just a month. If the free fares are extended, SRTA may add more capacity, he said.

Funding formula is unfair, report finds

SRTA depends on a mix of local, state and federal money. One study says the system for funding regional transit authorities in Massachusetts is inequitable.

The study by Tufts University’s Center for State Policy Analysis found that regional transit authorities are much more dependent on local aid than the MBTA, which receives more of its money from the state.

The funding formula for transit providers outside Boston mainly reflects ridership, not need, the report said. It doesn’t incentivize spending on innovations that could increase ridership, nor does it fully address economic and geographic disparities between different regions, the report found.

The report’s authors called for a funding system that provides more support for low-income and rural areas. They pointed out that SRTA is “relatively underfunded” compared to other authorities.

Email Grace Ferguson at [email protected]

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