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‘Just make it free’: Lawrence paid all the fares for three bus routes, and ridership is up

It would be hard to find a more effective way to spend a relatively small amount of city cash.

by Nestor Ramos, Boston Globe

It’s a bright, crisp afternoon as the Downtown Shuttle pulls up at a bus shelter in front of a senior center on Haverhill Street, opposite sprawling Campagnone Common.

A prominent green sign in the window — “FREE BUS” — leaves no doubt about what it takes to ride out to La Fruteria on Manchester Street to buy groceries, or around to Lawrence General Hospital for an appointment.

But some people miss the sign. Even now, a few months after the city announced that three city bus routes would be free to ride for at least two years, bus driver Tracy Bagley has to block the fare box with her hand before riders can swipe a card or insert a dollar bill.

In Lawrence, a long-struggling city heavily populated by immigrants and the working poor, the decision to spend a small portion of surplus cash on access to transportation is so blindingly simple that it turns out it can actually be a little bit difficult to get your head around: FREE BUS?

“In some of the poorest communities, this is the only mode of transportation,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said. He’d heard Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu advocate for making the T free, and he got to thinking: Maybe the bus could do more than move people from place to place. “Maybe," he said, "it should be a way to uplift communities.”

Under Rivera, Lawrence emerged from nearly a decade of state fiscal oversight that began with a $27 million operating deficit flush with about $15 million in free cash.

”When you have some reserves, you’re able to do some things that you wouldn’t otherwise,” Rivera said in a recent interview that included a ride on the bus.


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