Trinity Metro announced on April 19 that it would give free rides throughout early voting and on Election Day May 6 for those voting in the city council and area school board races this year.
It’s the first time the city’s public transit system has offered free rides during a municipal election — and the system is doing it on its own dime.
While Tarrant County voters have been able to catch free rides to the polls for primary and general elections on all Trinity Metro services since 2019 thanks to a county program, the city of Fort Worth declined to enter into a contract with Trinity Metro to offer the same service during municipal elections.
Laura Hanna, director of communications for Trinity Metro, confirmed in an email that the transit system is offering the free rides independent of the city of Fort Worth, and is not receiving any funding for it.
“We’re pleased to see that Trinity Metro is providing this needed transit service,” City spokesperson Kevin Neal said.
To use the free ride service, residents just need to show their voter registration card or current Texas ID.
County offers blueprint for free-ride program
Tarrant County started its free-ride pilot program in 2019 for general elections by contracting with Trinity Metro and other area transportation providers. Assistant county administrator Kristen Camareno said the free rides in 2019 were for Election Day only, and the program registered 600 trips during that period.
The county decided to expand the program in the 2020 primary to include free rides for both the early voting period and Election Day. They recorded 3,000 trips.When the 2020 general election rolled around — a presidential election year — the program hit its peak of 6,000 trips.
“It’s worked well, as a sort of additional option for voters,” Camareno said.
The county’s costs associated with the program are low; the 2019 pilot cost $1,000, the 2020 primary cost $6,000, and the 2020 general cost $12,000. Last year’s general election rides cost $5,500.
The county contracts with local municipalities to run municipal elections each year, Camareno said, and it would be feasible for the local municipalities like Fort Worth to partner with Trinity Metro to finance a free-ride program.
Camareno said the county had discussions with Trinity Metro and Fort Worth in 2021 about expanding the free ride program, but ultimately the city didn’t want to pay for the free rides.
“The setup is there, the structure is there,” Camareno said. “That’s really the precedent that’s been set for this program … And of course, if the city wanted to provide this service to their voters during municipal elections, they could contract with Trinity Metro.”
When asked about the program April 5, William Johnson, Fort Worth assistant city manager overseeing the Transportation & Public Works Department, provided the following statement:
“We are aware that Trinity Metro has offered no-charge bus service to commuters during major election cycles in the past. The City of Fort Worth has not reached out to Trinity Metro for a service of this type during the 2023 Municipal election.”
While the city isn’t bankrolling the effort, Hanna with Trinity Metro said April 21 that the idea to offer free rides came about as a result of discussions with the city.
“No decision has been made on future free rides for voting in municipal elections,” she said.
Research differs on impact of free-ride programs
Municipal elections have the lowest turnout of any election types in the county.
Turnout in general elections vastly outpaces participation in municipal races; in 2022, Tarrant County recorded a 47% voter turnout rate for the general election, compared to a 14% voter turnout rate for the 2021 municipal election.
Research is sparse on whether or not free public transportation increases voter turnout. A 2016 survey conducted by Harvard University found 14% of non-voting Americans said they didn’t vote because they couldn’t get a ride to a polling place. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which operates out of Tufts University in Massachusetts, published a survey showing that youth without college educations disproportionately cited a lack of transportation options as a reason for not voting.
But ridership differences on fare-free days for elections are negligible in Dallas and Houston, which offer similar programs to Tarrant County.
The federal Department of Transportation encourages transit operators to consider fare-free days during election cycles to increase access to voting, in addition to changing service routes to include stops at polling locations.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.