Bay of Plenty Regional Council has voted to extend Tauranga's successful trial of free bus fares for school children to Rotorua and Whakatāne.
The move has been met with applause from Rotorua education leaders.
The decision comes after impassioned pleas regarding the future of public transport in a regional council meeting on Wednesday, during Long-term Plan deliberations.
The decision was made subject to funding from Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency.
The free fares in Rotorua and Whakatāne will only be available during school pick up and drop off times.
Rotorua Principals Association president and Mamaku School principal Gary Veysi said free buses would make a huge difference to children in Rotorua, especially those in emergency housing who did not always have access to cars.
"We can't teach kids who are not there."
Veysi said there were Rotorua principals who had worked hard to ensure all children were attending school and he believed free buses would make one less barrier in their way.
"If that's a barrier to parents, then this has to be a positive outcome... if we can make access to school on a bus in a safe way, that's what it's all about.
"This is going to be really amazing for those principals who have been working really hard in Rotorua, especially after Covid-19."
Other decisions carried include expanding the fare-free service to include tertiary students and Community Services Card holders as well as funding a Carless Wednesday business case and providing better bus services in Rotorua.
Council staff advised councillors not to adopt free fares for all groups due to "financial challenges" but suggested a one-year trial of free fares for school students in the wider Bay at specific times.
Councillor Lyall Thurston called on his colleagues to "be brave".
"To me, there's a herd of three elephants in this room - transport, climate change and carbon emissions. To me, they are the real big issues we need to address. We must stand up to be transformational."
Councillor Paula Thompson said the free fares for school students in Tauranga had already proven to be a success and continuing or extending the programme was a "no brainer".
"My issue is around what could be the benefit if we tried free fares all the time. We have a lot of after-hours extra-curricula activities and they are not supported by buses, therefore we are getting mum and dad back out on the road again."
However, councillor Stuart Crosby warned that he did not think the region could afford it, a view echoed by councillor David Love.
The cost to extend the free fare bus service to Rotorua and Whakatāne was estimated at $1.4 million a year in foregone revenue.
This was expected to be picked up by targeted rates per household that translated to $24 in Tauranga, $4 in Rotorua and $1 in Whakatāne.
Councillor Andrew von Dadelszen said it was important to note that each passenger on a bus in Rotorua had a "raw cost" before subsidies of $15.11 per year.
"If we are going to spend more money we have to get better outcomes, otherwise it's ridiculous. These are pretty horrific figures. We do need the support on the fares but also of Waka Kotahi as well to make it a viable service for us. Otherwise, ratepayers are going to be absolutely slammed.
"Whether NZTA will continue to support the free fares service for schools ... [we don't know].
Transport agency director of regional relationships David Speirs said the organisation would continue to work with the regional council to investigate options to increase bus patronage and support school children to use buses.
"Waka Kotahi is committed to getting more people onto buses to reduce emissions, free up room on our transport network and create space for freight."
Rotorua Boys' High School principal Chris Grinter congratulated the council on the positive initiative.
"This is great news as I know this will significantly benefit students in the Eastern and Western suburbs of Rotorua, who want to come to our school but can't afford it.
"Likewise for those who already travel on those services, it will mean a significant saving for them and their whānau."
Mokoia Intermediate's Rawiri Wihapi had students travelling by bus from Rotoiti and Lake Okareka and believed the initiative would benefit their whānau.
"It's a double bonus really because we have the funding for buses when we go on trips, so parents don't have to pay for that. And then we have council now paying for the buses so it's certainly going to help families financially."
He hoped students living closer to school would also be able to utilise the service and believed it would help all schools with their attendance rates.
A Toi Ohomai spokeswoman said anything that removed a potential barrier to education was something to celebrate.
The Tauranga-wide trial was launched in July 2019, following a similar trial for students in Welcome Bay and years of lobbying from parents. The trials were conceived in part to help ease congestion in peak hours.
Lee-Ann Taylor, head of the Aquinas College Parent-Teacher Association, was one of those who pushed for the service.
Taylor hoped the initiative would create a pattern in which children would continue to use buses as they grew older, but the benefits didn't stop there, she said.
The decisions will now be incorporated into the regional council's draft Long-term Plan for adoption next month.