When told that service on Metro Transit's Route 32 bus would be free beginning July 1, David Sulem seemed astonished, even a bit gobsmacked.

"That is a very good idea," said the retired Navy veteran, who depends on public transportation to get around.

Both Route 32, a workhorse line that stretches from Roseville to Robbinsdale through Sulem's northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, and Route 62 connecting Shoreview and West St. Paul along Rice Street, won't be charging fares for the next 18 months — part of a pilot program advanced by the Legislature this session.

With the program, Metro Transit is tentatively embracing a budding national movement calling for public transit service to be free to millions of users. Some 34 transit agencies across the United States offer some kind of free service, largely in an effort to boost ridership that plummeted during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Proponents say public transportation should be free for all — much like other services subsidized by taxpayers, such as libraries, parks and highways. Eliminating fares, they say, helps mitigate economic and racial disparities and gets greenhouse gas-spewing cars off the roads.

"It's incredibly exciting to hear other communities are getting access to what they need for their health and well-being and daily lives," said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, a passionate advocate for free transit whose rallying cry is "Free the T" — that city's vast public transportation system.

In a program being imitated by Metro Transit, Boston waived fares in March 2022 on three heavily used bus routes that serve diverse neighborhoods. A report last March on the two-year pilot project found that ridership on those routes recovered faster than for the broader bus system, and the money that riders saved went for groceries and contributed to emergency savings.

"Public transit is one of those pieces of fundamental infrastructure that our entire community needs to be healthy and prosperous," Wu said.

"Not only do people need and benefit from saving that little bit of bus fare, but they don't have to ration trips, and they feel like they belong in the city because a necessity for residents is being provided without financial barriers," she added.

But the question tempering debate over free public transportation remains: How are cities going to pay for it?

Cobbling funding together

Of Metro Transit's annual revenue of $566 million, roughly $56 million is collected from fares paid by transit users. That's not a trivial amount.

The free-fare pilot program, which was unanimously approved by the regional planning body last week, is being funded out of Metro Transit's operating budget. That will be bolstered by a new 0.75-cent metro-area sales tax approved this spring by the Legislature for transportation purposes, according to Drew Kerr, the transit agency's spokesperson. The new tax goes into effect Oct. 1.

The program also permits certified Metro Mobility customers to ride for free on Metro Transit, Maple Grove Transit, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Plymouth Metrolink, and SouthWest Transit, though they will still have to pay for basic Metro Mobility service.

Metro Transit estimates the pilot program will result in a loss of $930,000 in bus fare revenue over the 18-month period. In Boston's case, $8 million in federal COVID-relief funds was used to pay for the pilot program, and Wu said the city will look to tap federal and state funds if the program becomes permanent and expands.

Most other cities with free-fare programs cobble together state, local and federal funds in some fashion to cover the loss in revenue. In Pennsylvania, lottery proceeds are used to supplement free transit for seniors.

Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, a key player in pushing through the free-fare program at the Legislature, said the effort should be supported financially by the state's general fund. "I've never heard anyone ask how we pay for a road," she said.

"To entice people to take the bus, we have to have buses that are attractive and affordable to boost ridership, and when you do that, you make buses safer," Jordan said. "Buses are the bedrock of our transit system and our future."

Still, some Republicans expressed concern as the free-fare initiative moved toward a vote at the State Capitol. State Rep. John Petersburg of Waseca, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said "ridership is not free. There is a cost to the rest of the taxpayers."

Kansas City's free fares

The experience of Kansas City, the first major metro area to go entirely fare-free, is instructive for transit agencies looking to give it a try.

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority phased in its Zero Fare program, according to spokesperson Cindy Baker. Free fares were first implemented for veterans beginning in 2017, then high school students were added a year later.

In 2019, free fares were extended to clients of social service agencies; later that year, the perk was offered for riders of the city's third bus-rapid transit line. The entire system converted to a free-fare platform in March 2020 — just as the pandemic took hold.

"Ridership in Kansas City did not fall off as sharply as most other cities, which we attribute to zero fare most likely," Baker said in an email. "We have also rebounded more quickly than other cities, [and are] now at our pre-pandemic ridership" levels.

The fare loss to the Kansas City transportation authority adds up to about $8 million, with Kansas City, Mo., committing close to $5 million a year to keep the program going. So far, the difference has been covered by federal funds.

Metro Transit's program

Metro Transit carefully chose which bus routes would offer free service, said Dennis Dworshak, revenue operations senior manager. Both routes serve people who depend on transit, such as people of color and low-income riders. Average weekday ridership is about 1,300 on Route 62, and 800 on Route 32, according to Metro Transit.

Dworshak said people may ride the bus more often if they don't have to pay, and boarding is faster if they don't have to rummage for fare money, making the system more reliable.

Some supporters say free programs may benefit bus operators, because they're sometimes assaulted due to disputes over fares.

One Route 32 bus driver said last week he wasn't aware of the free-fare program. "No one pays their fare anyway," he said.

Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy and mobility for the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association, said free-fare programs could encourage riders to hop on the bus without any destination in mind.

"If you don't have fares, that means anyone can get on and off for any reason, to ride or hang out, or have a little meeting with friends," he said.

The Met Council will report back to the Legislature in early 2025 and decide then whether to continue the program. Metro Transit already has a Transit Assistance Program, which provides $1 fares to about 4,000 customers.

At the Rosedale Transit Center last week, a lively discussion ensued among Route 32 riders about free transit.

"If transit isn't free, it should be affordable," said Sardar Brown, of St. Paul. "If people don't have [fare money] then they won't be able to look for a job."

Said another rider, Dee Moore, of Prior Lake: "Those who can afford the fare should subsidize people who can't pay. They should help lift the tide for everyone else."