In-Depth

Would Free Transit Incentivize More Riders? METRO Gathers Input On Whether To Stop Collecting Fares

Transit agencies around the country, including in Houston, are considering whether to cut or reduce their transit fares.

If you ride a local METRO bus in Harris County it will most likely cost you $1.25, though there are also half-priced fares for students, seniors and people with disabilities. But what if you didn’t have to pay at all?

Tory Gattis from the Center for Opportunity Urbanism said he’s been encouraging METRO to take a fresh look at its fares.

“We have to wonder, if we were able to reduce or eliminate these fares, how many more riders would we get on these HOV buses and how much would this reduce congestion on the freeways,” he said.

Gattis, who also writes the transportation blog Houston Strategies, said the benefits would include reduced traffic congestion, increased air quality and faster travel times.

As it stands right now, most of METRO’s operating funds don’t come from the fares. The transit agency gets most of its money from a one-cent sales tax, which caught the attention of Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack recently spoke before the METRO board on why the agency should consider free or reduced fares. He said that people are already paying for the transit service through the sales tax and a financial incentive for riding could get more people on board.

“And so if we just keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to build more freeways, we’re going to continue to do other forms of transportation, but at the end, it makes no sense to have buses only partially full running around,” said Radack.

METRO’s financial analysts are currently studying whether the agency should reduce or eliminate fares.

Transit ridership has been mostly flat over the past year, but METRO hopes to boost those numbers through a package of long term improvements. Voters just approved a $3.5 billion bond issue to help pay for it.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said while fares aren’t a huge part of their budget, they’d have to figure out a way to make up that money if they stopped charging riders.

“I think what people don’t realize is there are unanticipated consequences of a free fare policy that we just need to fully consider before we went to it,” Patman told News 88.7.

And those consequences are what concern Oni Blair. She heads the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston. Blair said to get more riders, METRO needs to put its focus on other issues.

“It’s the little things we take for granted,” said Blair. “Does the bus come on time? Because if I’m trying to schedule my day I need to get there on time and know what to predict. Does the bus come frequently, so people don’t have to wait half an hour to an hour for the bus to come? Can I wait in dignity at a shelter that is accessible and safe for me?”

And Blair said that all those things cost money.

“The loss of revenue from the fares METRO currently has would undermine their other access to improving operations, improving customer service, improving all of those things,” said Blair. “If they don’t have that revenue they can’t address the things that people want.”

METRO’s financial analysts are currently looking at whether the agency should reduce or eliminate fares. The board is now waiting to get a report. 

“I am hopeful that METRO will be willing to take a little risk and go out on a limb and at least try it,” said Gattis. He’s suggesting METRO try the free fares during off-peak hours.

METRO officials said if they do move forward with free or reduced fares, they’d start with a pilot program and it wouldn’t all happen at once.

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Gail Delaughter

Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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