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Five Springfield City Councilors float a fare-free bus proposal

The PVTA's B7 bus stops on Main Street at Court Square on route between the Eastfield Mall and Union Station.
Paul Tuthill
The PVTA's B7 bus stops on Main Street at Court Square on route between the Eastfield Mall and Union Station.

The PVTA and Mayor Sarno said their plan is not sustainable

A group of City Councilors in Springfield, Massachusetts are advocating for a free public transportation proposal. But it has met a cool response from the city administration.

Five members of the Springfield City Council Friday announced the “Fare-free Bus Riding Initiative” to create a two-year pilot program that would allow people to ride on three PVTA bus lines without having to pay the current $1.50 one-way fare.

The cost of the program is estimated at $3.4 million, according to City Councilor Justin Hurst, and the proposed source of funding is the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money.

“We know it can be done, lets figure out how to do it,” Hurst said.

A resolution outlining the proposal is on the agenda for Monday night’s City Council meeting. Councilor Tracye Whitfield, who chairs the Finance Committee, said she will schedule a public hearing.

The proposal is to make the B7, G2, and B6 buses fare-free. The B7 bus has the highest ridership in Springfield, while the B6 and G2 have the third and fourth-highest, respectively, according to Hurst.

“This is not a large sum of money when you consider the amount of people it is going to impact, the benefits it will have and the amount of money we’ve received,” Hurst said.

To publicize the initiative, the five Councilors rode a B7 bus from the Eastfield Mall to downtown Springfield during Friday morning’s commute and spoke with passengers.

Whitfield said she was moved by hearing from a single mother who spends about $300 a month for her and her two children to ride the bus.

“She could be saving that to invest in her own transportation,” Whitfield said. “She could be saving that for her children’s college education.”

Making public transportation fare-free would benefit more than just the people who ride the buses, said City Councilor Zaida Govan.

“It will improve road safety and have an environmental impact, and have the potential for future transit employment opportunities” Govan said.

What the Councilors are proposing is hardly groundbreaking, said Councilor Kateri Walsh, who observed there are fare-free pilot programs right now on public transit buses in Boston, Worcester, and Lawrence.

“We should be the leader in Springfield, not the follower,” Walsh said.

Speaking at a press conference in City Hall after their bus trip, City Councilor Victor Davila urged the administration to support their proposal.

“So, it is my hope the mayor doesn’t miss the bus on this proposal,” Davila said to chuckles from his fellow Councilors.

But, Mayor Domenic Sarno, speaking with WAMC, appeared ready to slam on the brakes.

“You can’t make everything free because there is sustainability there,” Sarno said. “How do you continue to pay for this? A lot of the fees charged by the PVTA go into their budget.”

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the PVTA said, “Fare Free service is a short-term scenario that will hinder PVTA’s ability to provide the needed service our customers rely on and implement service improvements to better serve our riders.”

Springfield received $123 million in ARPA funds, and has so far spent a small fraction of it. $5 million went for bonus pay for essential city workers. A total of just over $4 million has been given out in grants to small businesses and nonprofits. $12 million is being set aside for a neighborhood revitalization effort.

Sarno said he has several “transformative” projects in mind for the ARPA money, and will make announcements in the coming weeks and months.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.