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Sebastopol residents will be able to ride their local bus for free for the next year, thanks to a city-subsidized effort to increase ridership and access to public transportation.

The fare-free initiative for Route 24, which connects the downtown transit hub with destinations around the city, kicked off June 4. The 8-mile loop’s weekday service was also extended to 6:37 p.m. while providing new access to the Barlow and increased connectivity to other bus routes that link to the Cotati SMART station. The route has a terminus near the intersection of Highway 116 and Cooper Road, looping through neighborhoods with stops near Analy High School.

“It’s primarily for the convenience of citizens, especially for the population that finds it difficult with the two major highways in town,” City Manager Larry McLaughlin said. “It will enhance the livability of our city by making our bus more accessible to everyone — it makes our businesses more successful; it makes people’s lives better.”

So far, 217 more riders have used the route over last June’s numbers — an estimated 28 percent increase, Sonoma County Transit Systems Manager Bryan Albee said.

“Into the first month, we had good response from students and seniors and just the very broad use of a route that in the past was primarily used by seniors,” he said.

In May, the Sebastopol City Council approved as much as $11,481 in funding to subsidize lost fares at the rate from fiscal year 2017-18, plus an expected increase of 20 percent. Sonoma County Transit, which operates the line, will cover additional costs, Albee said. Fares range from 75 cents to $1.50.

In fiscal year 2017-18, about 12,000 riders used the route, the vast majority of them seniors, according to a staff report. That’s about par for the course for past annual ridership, Albee said.

The decision for the city to subsidize fares was born after the city and community groups sponsored two focus groups earlier this year, and received 178 responses to an online and hard-copy survey about ridership. The majority of existing riders asked for longer hours and added stops, according to survey results.

Free fares eliminate a financial burden for those on a fixed income, and create ease of access for the younger generation, who might not carry change, Vice Mayor Neysa Hinton said. Some potential riders also expressed confusion over routes and how the system works, so City Councilwoman Sarah Gurney went door to door to hand out maps of the route and rode the bus for a few weeks to make new riders more comfortable, McLaughlin said. Gurney didn’t respond to requests for comment last week.

The transit agency will also debut the first electric bus in its fleet in Sebastopol in August, Albee said.

The pilot program runs through June 30, 2019. Hinton said it could be extended, depending on the first year’s results.

“If the public uses and wants it, there’s a good chance to continue it again,” she said.

The city of Healdsburg will also pay $10,000 this fiscal year a fare-free program for its Route 67 for a two-year period that began Sunday.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, 8,500 riders used the line, and a 20 percent increase is expected with free fares, Albee said. No ID is required for either program.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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