LAWRENCE — People who live and work in the city will have a new option to get around: free bus rides.
The city inked a deal with the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority to provide service on the three primary routes that crisscross downtown, from the Methuen line to the Mt. Vernon neighborhood and throughout South Lawrence.
"This has been in the works since the state of the city address on Feb. 19," Mayor Daniel Rivera said. "I want to make transportation a way to increase mobility and reduce the financial burden on people."
A report was unveiled recently showing many people living in gateway cities such as Lawrence and Lowell can't afford the high cost of taking the T into Boston.
Rivera said that while this initiative has nothing to do with that study, it should still help people on the margins who have a difficult time getting around without spending a lot of money on buses, taxis or Ubers.
"This is a small way the city can help people who live here to reduce the cost of living and improve their quality of life," he said, noting that free bus fare could help the elderly get to appointments and single moms and their kids get to and from preschool, for example.
He said the city council approved the plan as part of the regular budget in July. The total cost, to be paid to the MVRTA, is $225,000.
“I want to thank City Council President Kendrys Vasquez and the other councilors for their support in this effort," Rivera said.
Vasquez and Rivera rode the bus Tuesday morning as the program was officially kicked off by the city.
They met at the bus stop in front of the Senior Center, 155 Haverhill St., to hop on the Downtown Route 85 bus.
"I fully support it," Vasquez said. "It's a great opportunity to provide economic development in the city while benefiting the folks who need it the most."
He noted that one of the buses goes through the Arlington neighborhood, which he called "one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and in the state of Massachusetts."
"This is taking one burden away from folks while providing access to quality transportation," he said.
The buses typically run from about 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and stop at individual locations about every half hour, he said.
While the current charge isn't much — about $1.25 per ride — the hope is that offering free service will increase ridership, which is currently more than 92,000 riders a year, Rivera said.
Vasquez said more riders taking free buses will also improve air quality if fewer people are driving their cars and more are taking the bus.
The three MVRTA routes in downtown and throughout Lawrence that will be free include Route 34 (Prospect Hill); Route 37 (Beacon Street); Route 85 (Lawrence Downtown Shuttle). The city's cost of $225,000 will be paid for through free cash reserves, the mayor said.