Bus service in Connecticut is better than ever. Why aren’t fares keeping up? 

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All of Connecticut’s transport agencies, some of which are above, have offered free fares since April 2022. Unless it gets extended, the program is set to end on March 31, 2023. Photos by Thess Johnson/The Daily Campus

Yesterday morning, I waited at the Milldale Park and Ride bus stop in Southington. From there, like many other days, I rode the Route 928 bus, which drove up from Southington to Hartford. In Hartford, with another student, I waited for about 15 minutes before the Peter Pan Route 913 bus picked us up and whisked us away to the University of Connecticut. 

Sure, starting from the bus stop near my home in Southington and going to UConn did take a bit over two hours, but it was a pleasant trip; the total cost was zero, the express buses had nice seats and the Peter Pan bus even had a bathroom. 

This was my first journey to UConn of this new year, but I was curious: What would that trip have looked like 10 years ago in 2013? 

2013 was not that long ago, but for public transport in Connecticut, things have developed exponentially since then. If I were to attempt the trip then, I would have been limited from the get-go. Nowadays most express buses have around a dozen departures each way, providing reasonable transfers to other routes. Back then, only three went from Southington to Hartford each day. The sheer lack of trips then would mean that taking the latest Route 928 bus to Hartford (then referred to as Route 24), would get me there a whopping four hours before the earliest bus to Willimantic. Why Willimantic? Well, there was no bus directly to UConn from Hartford yet, unless you wanted to pay something like $20 for a Peter Pan. To finally get to UConn, a transfer in Willimantic to a Storrs-bound bus would deliver me on the last leg of my journey. 

Seven hours and 45 minutes with a mandatory four-hour layover in Hartford and a one-hour layover in Willimantic. That is how long yesterday’s “pleasant” trip would have taken me in 2013. 

Importantly, how much would this ride have cost? Well, unfortunately for the Constitution State’s college students, the UPass program was just being created that year according to a CTtransit report, so full fares would be the only method of payment. There were exceptions, like WRTD using student passes, but these were not statewide yet. The answer is $7.50. Not awful, but for the spotty service would it really be that good of a deal? 

It is obvious from the description of the two trips, then and now, that service has significantly improved over the years. At the same time, the fares have not improved. 

I remember standing at the Bushnell Park bus stop in Hartford in the dark during the Winter of 2021. I was able to use my UPass to get on quickly, but I saw the following scene: a UConn student was refused entry to the bus since he did not have his UPass and was a dollar below the fare. 

Would that dollar have made a real difference for the company?  

The fact is that public transport providers, aside from those in cities like New York, have not been able to sustain themselves completely off fares since the 1950s or 1960s. Ever since the hurried rebirth of United States public transport in the 1970s, transport agencies have needed local, state and federal funding to operate, with their fares serving as supplemental income. The reason companies like Peter Pan and Greyhound are private is because they can charge $33.00 to go from UConn to Providence. For a public transport agency, providing access to transport means implementing low enough fares to encourage ridership from people of all economic statuses. 

In an attempt to scrounge up that little bit of extra revenue from riders despite the aid they receive, you get a mess of fare types and fare methods. One dollar for all rides in Northeastern Connecticut, $1.75 for a bus token in Bridgeport, free transfer with an express bus fare on a GoCT card. 

Luckily, in April 2022, citing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature suspended all bus fares. This was extended twice, and now is supposed to last until March 31, 2023. Each time the free fares were extended it was done so with bipartisan support, 134-7 in the most recent extension.  

The state and federal governments already provide for the operation of Connecticut transport agencies, so why not just have them cover the final fare gap indefinitely? Ridership, which was down during the pandemic, reached 103% of pre-pandemic totals in late-2022 primarily owing to the free fares according to Connecticut Public. Leaders in Hartford and New Haven want free fares to continue indefinitely, as do passengers, according to Mass Transit Magazine

Matching the improvement in service Connecticut has experienced, gone are the days of pulling out handfuls of quarters to buy a bus pass, at least until March 31. If Connecticut implements the free bus program permanently, we would be the first state to do so in the entire country. This program hurts no one and helps many. Like adding more trips, eliminating fares would be a step forward in the development of public transport in the state.  

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