In a surprising move, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority last week voted to end its year-long experiment with free bus service.

The program began as a one-year pilot last March offering free bus service on all its routes. Members cast their votes without giving a reason, but cost may have been a factor. The one-year trial cost the city $2 million in lost revenue. But one board member was upset. Gary Rosen said with more than $ 40 million in federal COVID-19 relief money coming to the city, the board should continue the fare-free pilot for another year.

"The federal funds are meant to improve service, to increase service," Rosen said. "That's what fare free will do."

While the board listened to his plea, they ultimately voted to bring back bus fares July 1. But they did agree to reopen the budget if sentiment toward the free bus program changed.

The debate in Worcester is playing out across the Commonwealth as more transit advocates and elected officials say that, as a public good, public transit should be fully subsidized with public funds. That would make it accessible for all regardless of income and encourage more people to take mass transit, lessening traffic congestion and air pollution.

On Beacon Hill, Democratic Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, Transportation Committee co-chair, has filed a bill to make all buses fare free across the state, including those operated by the MBTA and regional transit authorities. And Sen. Harriet Chandler, D - Worcester, has filed legislation to encourage regional transit authorities to experiment with pilot programs like the one in Worcester to see how they might boost ridership.

The first fare-free program in the state began three years ago when then Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera decided fares would no longer be collected on three of the city's busiest routes. Martha Velez, who now oversees the program, said it was in response to a dire need.

Velez said that Lawrence is "a community where there's a lot of social, economic issues and disparities, there are a lot of struggling people.

"And we did notice that the ridership went up and people really did use it — and continue to use it," she added.

Velez said ridership rose by more than 25% in six months, and a survey of bus users showed more than half earned less than $10,000 a year. Many said the money they saved on bus fare every month made it possible for them to pay rent, food and utility bills. The cost to Lawrence in terms of lost revenue is around $115,000 a year. It’s an expense city officials say is worth the cost, and they've decided to continue the program indefinitely.

The debate about making public transit free in Boston began two years ago. City Councilor Michelle Wu initiated her "Make The T Free" campaign after an unpopular fare hike. Wu is now running for mayor, and all the candidates in the race have a own plan for low — or no — fares on the T. That includes acting Mayor Kim Janey who rolled out her own fare-free initiative last month. Her plan provided nearly 1,000 workers with free Charlie cards preloaded with $60 each. More than 3,000 workers applied for the free cards, so Janey wants to extend the program using federal COVID-19 relief money. Janey is also working with the MBTA to make selected bus routes free — especially those that serve the neediest communities, whose residents have few options other than buses to get around.

The T's general manager, Steven Poftak, has pointed out that if a fare-free program is created in Boston, it must be narrowly focused because the outlook for post-pandemic revenue is wildly uncertain.

"I would be very cautious about any discussion that would jeopardize that revenue ... one has to take into account what would we have to spend to keep the current level of service if indeed there were no fares," Poftak said.

For the T, that's at least $200 million a year in lost bus revenue. And to complicate things, unlike places like Worcester or Lawrence, most people using the T don't just take the bus but transfer to subways and trains which, in theory, they would still have to pay for if just the buses were free.

Rather than eliminating fares on certain routes, some advocates say instituting low-income fares across the system would be a better approach to serve lower-income riders — though, as always, it would be a delicate balance between providing more affordable public transit and sustaining the transit agency so it can provide the service needed for everyone.