By Annie McGowan,
Deputy Director of Research,
The Civic Federation
Is public transit a utility or a public good? What role does transit play in equity and climate change? Should transit be free?
These were some of the big picture questions covered during a panel discussion about innovative solutions in public transit, as part of the 2023 annual conference hosted by the Governmental Research Association.
“Rarely do we get to dream” in transit, said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, Transportation Undersecretary for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The Undersecretary underscored the inextricable link between transit and housing, noting that access to transit improves equity.
Dr. Joshua Boucher, Research Associate at the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, shined a spotlight on Worcester’s free public transit pilot program, which was recently extended another year through June 2024. Since the free pilot program began in 2020, Worcester has seen a rebound in ridership, which began falling even before the COVID-19 pandemic. And it has benefitted riders who rely on the bus system, most of whom are low-income. The free transit program is currently being covered by federal COVID relief funds, but will rely on more funding from the State of Massachusetts in order to continue providing the free service. Undersecretary Tibbits-Nutt commended the free transit service as the right and equitable thing to do.
Sarah Boden, Senior Account Executive for Transit Partnerships at Uber Transit, spoke about the unique role that Uber Transit can play in public transit by partnering with transit agencies to fill in transit gaps. On-demand service could be especially helpful as a safe and cost-effective option during late night hours or in areas where transit is scarce. She emphasized that with the pandemic’s lasting changes in work and travel patterns, transit agencies are now needing to rethink how to best serve riders and meet communities’ needs.
With federal COVID-19 relief funds coming to an end within the next few years and ridership levels still well below pre-pandemic levels, the biggest question is how to pay for transit services going forward. In Massachusetts, there has been a $55 million funding increase to the Department of Transportation, but Undersecretary Tibbits-Nutt acknowledged that this is not enough. She noted there is constant competition among government agencies for state funding. She encouraged valuing transit like other critical government services such as education, and acknowledged the need to fully back transit plans with sufficient funding.
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