WORCESTER, Mass. - The Worcester Regional Transit Authority advisory board voted Thursday morning to continue fare-free bus service until June 2023.

The fare-free service has been extended before and was supposed to end in December.

WRTA administrator Dennis Lipka said it'll cost the WRTA nearly $1.5 million to fund the free service. He said they'll use COVID relief funding to pay for it.

Lipka said out of the $37.5 million they've received from the Cares Act, they'll have spent half of it in three years.

"There is no replacement money coming in for that," Lipka said. "So at some point, we're going to have to deal with not having Cares money and where does all the revenue come from for things like increased cost of fuel, increased cost of drivers and mechanics wages and operating expenses? The revenue from fares, not a huge part of the process, will become a question of whether or not we can provide the same level of service."

Lipka said ridership dropped during the pandemic, but levels are back to about 3 million rides a year, which is where they were in 2019.

The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce supports a fare-free system and is asking WRTA leadership and the advisory board to establish a zero-fare pilot for a three year period starting in January of 2023.