Wu says local-option tax could help fund fare-free MBTA service
Mayoral candidate says free bus service would be a first step
WHEN IT COMES to fare-free MBTA service, is Michelle Wu willing to put her money – or that of Boston residents – where her mouth is?
The frontrunner in the Boston mayor’s race has touted the idea of fare-free MBTA service, something she says is a matter of racial and economic justice as well as a smart climate and transportation policy.
The idea of hopping on subways and buses at no cost is appealing but unrealistic, say critics. Wu’s election rival, fellow city councilor Annissa Essaibi George, has called free-fare service on the state-run MBTA a pie-in-the-sky promise Wu makes that depends entirely on the state underwriting its cost, something Beacon Hill leaders don’t look very anxious to do.
But Wu said on Wednesday that she would be open to proposals that have Boston residents help pay at least some of the cost of free fares. Wu said she supports legislation on Beacon Hill to authorize “regional ballot initiatives,” a method of raising revenue for local transportation projects by asking voters to approve new taxes – usually sales or property levies.
“Everything should be on the table at this point, because the lack of reliable, accessible, affordable transportation in Boston exacerbates every racial and economic injustice facing our communities and our residents,” Wu said in a press briefing outside City Hall. “I would be very much in support of making sure that that type of financing mechanism could also include other projects that might not just be limited to physical infrastructure.”
Asked whether she would push for a local option tax to be put on the ballot and urge Boston residents to vote for it if the legislation is passed, Wu said, “It’s a lot of hypotheticals. But I will push to make sure that we have every tool available and then, if those tools become available, to figure out how to most quickly deploy them.”
The legislation has long been backed by leaders of Gateway Cities and other Boston area mayors, and former Boston mayor Marty Walsh jumped on the bandwagon toward the end of his tenure. In November 2019, he talked up the idea of regional ballot initiatives to support transit on an episode of The Codcast, and promoted the idea two months later in his next-to-last State of the City address.
Essaibi George’s campaign said she also supports the legislation, but pointed out that it has not budged and is another potential way to fund one of Wu’s signature campaign issues that Boston’s mayor has no control over. Essaibi George has said she would focus on transit issues the mayor can deliver on, such as subsidized fares for low-income residents and Boston Public Schools students.
Elizabeth Weyant, director of government affairs at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said enacting measures like the regional ballot initiative legislation, which allow communities to put local dollars on the table for transportation, may become even more important under the huge infrastructure bill being hashed out in Washington. “Congress is going to start to require a little local skin in the game,” she said. “I think cities and counties and states that are better able to do that are more likely to get dollars.”
Wu pointed out at Wednesday’s press briefing that the city already stepped up to help defray the cost of fare-free service. This summer, the city and MBTA launched a pilot initiative providing free service for three months on the Route 28 bus. The city has contributed $500,000 to offset fare losses on the route, which travels from Mattapan Square to Ruggles Station.
In Tuesday night’s televised mayoral debate, Essaibi George suggested Wu’s plan would cost $2.3 billion, but that figure represents the T’s entire annual budget. Fare revenue, Wu said on Wednesday, accounts for $600 to $700 million of that amount.
Wu said legislation filed by former Senate transportation committee chairman Joseph Boncore would provide $60 million to underwrite free bus service statewide – $30 million for the T and $30 million to cover the fare revenue at all other regional transit agencies in the state. Boncore resigned last month to head the state’s biotech trade organization.
With the election less than two weeks away, Wu deflected questions about transition planning and said the only polls that matter are the ones that close at 8 p.m. on November 2. But she seemed to strike a different note when talking about bus routes.“I’m going to be pushing right away from Day 1 to expand the free bus pilot that we already have in the city of Boston,” said Wu. “It’s slated to expire, to end at the end of November, and so understanding the data and the results from this and looking to add more routes will be the very, very first step in the first months of my administration.”