WORCESTER, Mass. - The Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) Advisory Board met Thursday morning to vote on three recommendations, including extending the WRTA’s zero fare program through 2022.

The advisory board voted unanimously in favor of recommending the administrative suspension of fares another year to Dec, 31, 2022.

Additionally, the board voted to recommend adopting a mobile fare payment and data collection system by Jan. 1, 2023 and to start a new fare policy and a public hearing process for the new fare policy next year. 

The zero fare program was scheduled to end on January 1, 2022.

“Our challenges are more than just a fare structure,” board administrator Gary Rosen said during the meeting. “Our challenges are a reliable, safe system. An efficient system. One in which the buses come on time and we have a lot of routes. So we still have a lot of issues to be talking about and improvements to be made.”

“It’s not just use funding that we have from the federal government just to offset fairs,” Rosen added. “We have a lot of other uses for that.”

Pre-pandemic, the WRTA averaged more than 200,000 riders each month. At the start of the pandemic, that number dropped by about 50%. 

WRTA administrator Dennis Lipka says there have been extensive discussions on what to do and how to move the WRTA forward. He says the WRTA is concerned about what happens when the federal funding from the Cares Act and the American Rescue Plan Act runs out in five years and will have to rely on federal transit administration funds, state contract assistance and local aid from cities and towns to make up the funding,

The WRTA received $37 million dollars in the first Cares Act stimulus and nearly $6 million in the American Rescue Plan package.

“I would not want to go back to the current fare structure,” Lipka said during Thursday’s meeting. “The fare collection system is inefficient and outdated and difficult to operate.”

Lipka said the WRTA received a federal grant of $750,000 to adopt the mobile fare payment system.

The advisory board’s recommendations will now go to the WRTA’s administrative staff to come with a plan and budget to implement the recommendations.