Would free school buses have enough impact on Tauranga's peak hour congestion - among other benefits - to be worth the cost, and who should pay?

Those questions are at the heart of a Bay of Plenty Regional Council proposal to trial fare-free, or reduced fare, buses for Tauranga school students next year.

The council said it would cost $2.2 million to trial free fares over the 2020 school year.

That would mean an increase to the targeted rate for passenger transport in Tauranga of roughly $22 per household for each of two rating years.

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Trying the subsidised fares option instead would be an extra $19 a year per household for two years.

The targeted rate set in the council's long-term plan last year is $120 a year per household.

About half the cost was for additional bus services to match the expected increase in demand. Another 40 to 45 per cent would cover lost fare revenue, and the rest would cover other expenses such as ticketing equipment, the council told the Bay of Plenty Times, clarifying conflicting information in its consultation document.

The council's research showed free fares would stop some - but not all - parents driving to school.

There were also potential downsides, such as people choosing to bus instead of walking or cycling, crowding on popular routes, funding issues and a reduction in long-term affordability with fewer people paying a fare.

Councillor Lyall Thurston. File photo / Stephen Parker
Councillor Lyall Thurston. File photo / Stephen Parker

Lyall Thurston, chairman of the council's Public Transport Committee, said the feedback he and colleagues had received so far about the proposal so far had been "overwhelmingly in support".

Among the supporters was Mount Maunganui College head boy Louis Donovan, who said it would be easier and fairer for families.

"As a school student I see so many kids struggling to afford to pay for buses.

"As soon as they get the ability they are on their scooters or in cars clogging up the roads."

Some supporters say the potential benefits are so great the council should expand its proposal to offer all children free bus travel at any time.

Glen Crowther of the Sustainable Business Network. File photo / George Novak
Glen Crowther of the Sustainable Business Network. File photo / George Novak

Glen Crowther of the Sustainable Business Network said the information he had seen indicated the cost to expand the proposal would be much smaller than the cost of free school fares.

He believed the added social, equity and environmental benefits alone made it well worth trying, and less complicated to administer than just school fares.

"If the bus service is good enough to give people a good experience we think free fares for all children would be a gamechanger."

Tauranga parent Lee-Anne Taylor, who fought the council's bus route changes, said free fares for all would be fairer but she remained concerns the new routes were not yet reliable enough.

Some students still left earlier and got home later as buses were stuck in congestion, and parents preferred to drive them to avoid that, she said.

Data from the Welcome Bay school bus free fare trial will also be taken into account when the council makes its decision.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Changes to school bus fares are part of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council's draft Annual Plan for 2019/20, which is out for consultation until May 6.

Make a submission online at boprc.govt.nz or attend an information event.

School buses now and then: Who pays?

Buses are funded through a combination of fares, New Zealand Transport Agency subsidies and Bay of Plenty Regional Council general and targeted rates, but the load has been shared differently over the years.

- The Ministry of Education* used to provide Tauranga's school buses fare-free
- 2009: Ministry signals it wants to stop the funding as the city has public transport
- 2015: Bay of Plenty Regional Council takes over with fare-free Schoolhopper buses
- 2015, Term 2: Council starts charging fares
- 2018, December: Council launches new network. Some school routes scrapped and students asked to use public buses instead
- 2019, term one: Trial of fare-free student school travel starts in Welcome Bay
- 2019, mid-term: Two operators were brought in to share school bus routes with NZ Bus, which had a driver shortage.

*The Ministry of Education still provides some buses in rural areas of the Bay of Plenty.

- Source: Bay of Plenty Regional Council