LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Cities across the country are experimenting with eliminating fares on public transportation and Louisville could soon join them.

What You Need To Know

  • Some mayoral candidates support moving Louisville's public buses to a fare-free model

  • TARC has recently studied the issue

  • Cities around the country have piloted fare-free programs in recent years

  • At least one mayoral candidate opposes eliminate fares for budgetary reasons

Several candidates to become the city’s next mayor tell Spectrum News 1 that, if elected, they would move toward a fare-free model for Louisville’s TARC buses. And the agency is already studying how such a transition could work. It will present its findings later this month.

Rob Monsma is ready for the change. 

An urban planner and transit activist, Monsma rides TARC two or three times a week. Otherwise, he relies on his bike or his feet. “I haven’t owned a car since 2012,” he said. 

The Highlands resident sees eliminating fares as a way to improve the TARC system, spur development, and, most importantly to him, fight climate change. 

“Auto dependency in the United States is one of the biggest contributors to climate change,” he said. “Getting people to adopt alternative modes of transportation that can reduce carbon emissions is an existential necessity at this point.”

The mayoral candidates who said they would push to eliminate fares, or at least study the possibility of doing so, provided a range of reasons.

Pastor Tim Findley Jr., one of eight Democrats in the race, said his administration would “partner with TARC to explore a fare free bus pilot program, either system-wide or along some of its most popular routes.” Eliminating fares, he said, would boost ridership and lead to more development along popular routes. 

Democrat Craig Greenberg said in a statement that he too “will support eliminating TARC fares” as mayor. Along with easing congestion and reducing emissions, he said such a policy would “allow working families to keep more money in their pockets.” Shameka-Parrish Wright, also a Democrat, has tweeted her support of eliminating TARC fares but did not respond to questions for this article. 

But not all candidates to succeed Mayor Greg Fischer are on board. Jefferson Circuit Court Clerk David Nicholson, a Democrat, said city leaders “certainly need to make public transit more equitable and easier to access, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a total elimination of fares.” Jefferstonwon Mayor Bill Dieruf, the most prominent Republican in the race, said he’s interested in “fresh solutions” for improving public transit in Louisville but “eliminating all revenue generated for TARC by rider fares should not be the next step.” 

A national movement

Fare-free transit options are not uncommon in some European countries, but until recently, they were hard to find in the U.S. outside of resort communities and college towns.

In late 2019, Kansas City became the largest city in the country to move its buses to a fare-free model. The charge was pushed by Mayor Quinton Lucas, who said it would make residents healthier and improve their quality of life. 

It also helped keep people on the bus once COVID hit. The change was credited with keeping ridership up while much of the country saw a steep decline during the first year of the pandemic. Local officials also said it had a major effect on how much those who rely on the bus spent on transportation, reducing their costs as much as $2,000 a year. 

The pandemic prompted some cities, such as Los Angeles, to temporarily eliminate bus fares and allowed others to experiment with fare-free models. In Boston, city officials eliminated fares on a single bus line for four months starting last August. In that time span, ridership nearly doubled, bringing it back to 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Earlier this month, at the behest of Mayor Michelle Wu, the program was expanded to include two more bus lines. All three will operate without fares for the next two years.

Findley and Greeberg both pointed to Boston as a potential model for Louisville and Monsma said starting a fare-free pilot with a few TARC lines would make sense. He suggested routes that go down Preston Highway, Dixie Highway, Broadway, and Oak Street.

Part of the argument for eliminating fares is that it makes it easier for people to hop on and hop off the bus without having to get a fare card or find correct change.

“We're not going to have vibrant and active transit in Louisville until more people start to consider our bus system a public good that benefits everyone, rather than service for the poor,” said Robert Levertis Bell, a candidate for the Kentucky State House of Representatives and a member of the Louisville Democratic Socialists of America. Last year, Louisville DSA canvassed 1,000 Louisville homes promoting a Green New Deal for Louisville, which included a call to make TARC free for riders. 

The price of free

According to TARC’s website, 15% of the agency’s funding comes from fares and passes, but that took a major hit over the past two years as ridership fell during the pandemic.

In fiscal year 2021, fare box revenue covered only 6% of the nearly $92 million in operating expenses.

Monsma said he thinks the money lost by eliminating fares could be offset by the jobs a fare-free TARC would help create. A portion of TARC’s funding currently comes from the occupational license tax collected by Louisville Metro Government. If eliminating fares boosts development and creates jobs, the funds colelcted for that tax would increase, boosting TARC's revenue.

Findley offered a similar suggestion when asked how he’d fund a fare-free service. “Whatever is lost in fares is more than made up for in economic growth elsewhere,” he said, citing research showing that Kansas City’s move to a fare-free system would generate between $13 million and $17.9 million in economic activity.

There is also some evidence that eliminating fares can save money for transit agencies. Collecting fares requires machines and technology that do not need to be maintained when bus rides are free. Olympic, Washington moved to fare-free transit in 2020 in part to avoid replacing antiquared fare boxes

Still, for Dieruf, the only candidate to categorically reject moving TARC to a fare-free model, it’s simply not the time to cut a funding source for “a cash-strapped public agency that already relies heavily on government funding for its operations.”

“​​The idea of eliminating TARC fares sounds appealing to those people who rely on public transit,” he said. But, he added, he undersands "the necessity to budget wisely and ensure that decisions made enable a business to keep operating and continue serving its customers.”