This week lawmakers in Stamford joined their counterparts in New Haven and Hartford and passed a resolution calling on Gov. Ned Lamont to make bus rides free forever.
Lamont suspended fares on all public transit buses in April 2022 to give people a break from inflation and lure back those who rode buses before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The fare suspension expires at the end of next month.
Leaders of the three cities have good reason to push for permanent fare-free busing. It helps the most financially vulnerable citizens; it increases ridership and economic activity; it reduces traffic congestion and air pollution.
But CTTransit bus fares will resume on April 1, state Department of Transportation communications manager Josh Morgan said Friday.
One reason is that fares, pre-pandemic, contributed about $43 million a year in revenue, Morgan said. It’s about one-fifth of the money needed to operate the state’s bus service.
Another reason is that the fare suspension was allowed as a pilot program, and the federal government restricts pilot programs to 12 months, Morgan said.
The 12 months are up on April 1.
“The fare-free program was a temporary pilot program that required an act of the state Legislature to provide additional funding to make up for the loss of fare box revenue,” Morgan said. “Federal guidelines require conducting a detailed analysis for any changes to services, fares, and routes that extend past a 12-month pilot.”
It’s bad news for people who can’t afford cars or choose to not own cars, relying instead on bus transportation.
But it’s welcome news for bus drivers who told the Connecticut Examiner that the fare-free program created a problem. Drivers said they did not want their names used because CTTransit has not authorized them to speak.
Homeless people have been boarding CTTransit buses with their belongings and staying for hours, sometimes occupying multiple seats, drivers said. Riders on their way to or from work during peak hours are forced to stand, drivers said. Bed bugs were spotted on at least one bus, they said.
Homeless people who board without their belongings sometimes hop on the bus for three or four blocks then ask to get off, drivers said. In one case, two men near the back of the bus who appeared to be intoxicated got into an argument heated enough that riders left their seats to stand in the front, they said.
It’s happening around Connecticut, Morgan said.
“We have seen similar issues in other areas of the state and worked to ensure bus operators and passengers feel safe using public transportation,” he said.
Along Hartford’s bus rapid transit system, for example, state police are patrolling stations and the guideway, Morgan said.
“Every bus in the CTTransit fleet has protective barriers installed to protect operators,” he said, and the department “is in consistent contact with service providers and transit districts around the state, and the safety of riders and operators remains our highest priority.”
Aaron Turner, director of government affairs and communications for the state Department of Housing, said the agency knows about the situation.
“The department has been made aware that a fair number of homeless individuals are using the bus lines, particularly moving between Hartford and New Britain,” Turner said Friday. “As a result, the service providers across the state have increased their outreach efforts at bus stations and in other public areas.”
Leroy Jordan has been serving Stamford’s homeless population for more than 23 years. Jordan, an outreach worker for the Pacific House shelter, said homeless folks are drawn to transit systems.
“I have a couple of clients who will get on a bus and ride it till they can’t ride it any more,” Jordan said. “Some of them have two or three bags they bring with them. The ones who live in a shelter don’t carry as much when they go out.”
More of his clients began riding the bus when they found out the $1.75 fare was waived, Jordan said. They likely include men who hang out, drinking, at the bus shelters outside Old Town Hall on Atlantic Street downtown, he said.
“Many of them have little or no money,” Jordan said. “If they had to pay, they would not take the bus. They would walk and keep their money in their pocket.”
The problem is that shelters in the area are at maximum capacity, Jordan said. It’s evident at another transit hub, the Stamford train station, he said.
“I’ve been doing a lot of late nights at the train station. I would say we’re averaging 35 people there a night,” Jordan said. “There are a lot of new faces from out of town. Some are immigrants coming from New York.”
One evening he counted more than 55 people at the train station, Jordan said.
“I saw the commuters had no place to sit down while they were waiting for their train. All the seats were taken by homeless people.”
Metro-North Railroad kicks homeless people out of the train station between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. to clean it, said State Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, who works to find shelter for people in need. Homelessness is increasing, he said.
“I just heard about the buses about a week ago,” Michel said. “Anywhere warm or protected is good, because we are out of room at the shelters.”
Jordan said the complaints from bus drivers are fair.
“I understand it. It also has a good aspect to it – I have been trying to tell people that there are homeless in Stamford, because people tell me there are no homeless in Stamford. The question now is what are we going to do to try to get this under control?” Jordan said. “I say let’s find a building, put cots in it and work with them from there. They are all looking for somewhere to stay at night. We can get data from them that will allow us to help them more. They will give up the data because they will have somewhere to sleep at night.”
Turner said the state Department of Housing will continue outreach to homeless people in the bus system even after fares are reinstated.
The homeless issue on buses comes at a time when drivers are worried about safety nationwide. On Friday, John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor union representing transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, met in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Afterward, Costa posted a note on Facebook about the “epidemic of attacks” on transit workers. ATU has Connecticut locals in Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Danbury, New London, Derby, Rocky Hill, and South Windsor.
“Our members are being attacked every day,” Costa wrote. “We’ve seen a 400 percent increase in assaults against transit workers in the last decade. They get shot, stabbed, spit on, get coffee and urine thrown in their face. Everyone deserves the right to a safe workplace, to come home to their family at the end of the day.”
Buttigieg pledged to address the safety concerns of transit workers, Costa wrote.