It will be free to ride the Nantucket Regional Transit Authority’s “Wave” buses this summer thanks to a $410,000 state grant obtained by the island transportation agency.
The “fare-free” pilot program will run for six months - from April through September - and will include all fixed routes and demand-response services offered by the NRTA.
“The hope is that people will try transit, use the bus, and they don’t have to worry about figuring out how to pay for the buses or buying passes,” said NRTA administrator Gary Roberts. “It will be get on the bus, get off the bus, we’ll track the ridership and there will be no charge to anyone.”
The hope, Roberts said, is that going fare-free will not only encourage more people to ride the bus but also allow drivers to complete more of their routes on time by doing away with the sometimes time-consuming nature of fare collection.
“One of the things when I came here that I noticed in the summer, sitting behind the bus stop as people were trying to board - they may be tourists - but they don’t understand how the fare equipment works, if they need cash, an exact fare, and so there’s a lot of waiting for passengers to board the bus,” Roberts said. “Taking away the fare aspect of it, I’m hopeful we can move along the buses and on-time performance will improve, and we can increase ridership if people know they can just hop on the bus and go. We’re hopeful this is a true test to see if fare-free is the way we should go to get people to ride the buses.”
The $410,000 grant comes from the state Department of Transportation’s $15 million “Try Transit” initiative, and the NRTA is one of 15 regional transit authorities across Massachusetts participating in the pilot program.
The NRTA's current fares range from $2 to $3 per ride, depending upon the route, with seniors able to ride for half-price, and children under 6 allowed to ride for free.
Since fares will be free for six months, Roberts said businesses will not need to buy seasonal passes for their summer staff (more than 700 seasonal passes were sold last year) and the cost of “period passes” for the entire year would be reduced by 50 percent.
The NRTA's ridership has started to recover from the lows of the pandemic but has still not returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, according to the latest figures Roberts recently presented to the Nantucket Planning & Economic Development Commission. In 2023, ridership was just above 200,000 people.
The NRTA began operating in 1995 and is managed by the administrator, Roberts, and an advisory board (the Nantucket Select Board). Year-round service began in the spring of 2018.
The transit authority currently owns 19 fixed-route and four demand-response vehicles and recently acquired two electric buses that will go into service this summer. The NRTA contracts with a private company, VTS of MA, Inc. to operate its buses and hire its drivers.
The NRTA is funded through a combination of state, local, and federal sources, along with its fare revenue and passes.