Wu proposes expanded free MBTA bus service

Mayor wants to use $8 million in federal aid to eliminate fares on 3 routes for two years

BOSTON MAYOR MICHELLE WU, who has faced a steady stream of doubters wondering how she would make good on a campaign vow to bring about fare-free MBTA service, used her first full day in office to begin to answer those skeptics: Step by step. 

Wu is asking the City Council to approve an $8 million appropriation that would use federal funds to eliminate fares for two years on three busy bus routes that travel through the heart of the city’s Black community. 

The proposal would build on a pilot program launched under Acting Mayor Kim Janey that provided free service on the Route 28 bus for four months. That program is slated to end on December 31. Wu’s proposal would extend free service on the 28 bus for two years, starting in January, and also provide fare-free service on the Route 23 and Route 29 buses. 

“I am excited to take this key step towards a brighter transit future,” Wu said in a statement. “Building on the fare-free 28 bus pilot created by Mayor Janey, we will expand access to transit across our neighborhoods, connecting more people to their schools, places of worship, small businesses, and community centers––and easing congestion on our bus riders and drivers alike.”

MBTA officials were notified on Tuesday of Wu’s proposal. “The MBTA is examining the proposal and the authority looks forward to discussions with the city,” spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. 

The 28 bus travels up Blue Hill Avenue from Mattapan Square, passing through Nubian Square in Roxbury before ending at Ruggles Station on the Orange Line. The 23 bus travels from Ashmont Station in Dorchester through Grove Hall to Ruggles, while the 29 bus travels from Mattapan Square to Jackson Square. 

The city said that while overall bus and subway ridership is now at 53 percent of the pre-pandemic weekday volume, ridership on the 28 bus is at 92 percent of its pre-pandemic level, making it the most popular bus line in the T system. 

Janey announced the fare-free pilot on the 28 bus this summer. The city committed $500,000 to cover lost fare revenue for three months, but Janey announced last week that the funding was enough to extend the pilot program through the end of the year. 

Wu, a regular T commuter who rode the Green Line to her swearing in on Tuesday, made fare-free MBTA service a major plank of her campaign, arguing that it was a matter of racial and economic justice as well environmental and transportation sustainability. She said public transportation should be treated more as a public good that is made available to all, but which would make a particularly big difference in the lives of lower-income residents. She said it could also help mitigate traffic and reduce emissions by providing an incentive for people to ride the T rather than drive. Eliminating fare collection on buses can also shorten bus travel times with passengers no longer queued up at bus doorways to pay their fare.  

In remarks following her swearing in on Tuesday, Wu sought to humanize her transit policy goals, talking about a Roxbury Community College student she met during the campaign who rides the 28 bus to school from his home in Mattapan. The fare-free pilot “changed his life,” she said, as he no longer had to continually scrounge for $2 to get to classes.

Wu’s office said the two-year initiative would allow time to measure the effects of fare-free service and also set “the foundation for Mayor Wu to build regional and state-level momentum for fare-free public transit, starting with buses.”

Although Wu has said free service throughout the T system is her ultimate goal, she previously signaled that her initial focus would be on bus service. 

“What we’re talking about as first step is fare-free buses across the entire system, which would be $30 million annually,” she said last month during the campaign. Fare revenue accounts for $600 to $700 million of the T’s overall $2.3 billion budget, so underwriting only the cost of bus service is a much less daunting proposition than eliminating fares system-wide. 

Gov. Charlie Baker has been dismissive of the idea of the state covering the costs of free MBTA service. “I don’t see a reason why you would expect people who live on the Cape, on the North Shore, in central or western Mass. who will never be anywhere near the T except on very rare occasions — why they should pay to give everybody in Boston a free ride,” he said earlier this month on the WCVB-TV show “On the Record.” He sounded more open to at least considering a plan in which Boston foots the bill for such an initiative. “If the city of Boston is willing to pay to give free T to the residents of the city of Boston, that’s certainly worth the conversation, I suppose,” Baker said. 

Wu met with Baker on Wednesday morning at his State House office and discussed a range of issues, including the situation at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and public transportation. Neither Baker’s office nor Wu’s responded immediately to the question of whether Wu raised the free-fare bus proposal in their meeting. 

Wu is proposing to fund the fare-free bus initiative with money from the $558 million Boston will receive in the American Rescue Plan Act. Her office said more than $360 million of the funding has yet to be allocated. 

Wu has suggested that she’ll focus a lot of her effort between now and January on the transition and building out her team at City Hall. But she said in a press briefing after her swearing in that she’ll do that “while we’re also hitting the ground running.” 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The free-fare bus proposal is the first tangible sign of that. It also shows a political savvy on Wu’s part by rolling out on Day 1 a plan that has clearly been in the works and that responds directly to criticism that some of her boldest proposals were “pie in the sky” aspirations that would be difficult to execute.

By pursuing initiatives like the expansion of fare-free bus service, Wu said in announcing the proposal, “we’ll reshape the boundaries of what’s possible in our city.”