Wu’s fare-free T: Fanciful notion or strategic thinking?
Beacon Hill not interested; Aloisi calls it pushing the envelope
BEACON HILL LEADERS are showing little interest in one of Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu’s campaign priorities – making the MBTA fare free.
At a State House press conference on Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Ron Mariano, and Senate President Karen Spilka were asked whether they support Wu’s call for the elimination of fares on the T. Baker said no, Mariano indicated he had other priorities for the T, and Spilka didn’t answer the question.
Without the support of Beacon Hill, there’s probably no way that Wu can deliver, raising the question of whether some of her campaign pledges are impractical or even fanciful, as her rival, Annissa Essaibi George, has suggested.
The Boston Globe, in a story on Monday, quoted Rep. Russell Holmes of Boston as saying he gives Wu credit for trying to turn the system upside down. But as he struggles to choose between Wu and Essaibi George, Holmes questioned whether Wu’s goals are attainable, even in a Democrat-controlled Legislature. “You can have a bold marker, but when do you anticipate achieving that?” he asked.
Aloisi said fares account for a third of the T’s operating revenue, and current projections indicate the transit authority will face major shortfalls in its operating budget when federal aid runs out. When that happens, he said, the T will either need more revenue or be faced with a choice between raising fares or cutting services, neither of which are acceptable. “The T needs to reduce its reliance on fares for its operating budget expenses,” he said.
Beacon Hill so far has avoided the issue, Aloisi said, but Wu is pressing for more revenue. “That’s what mayors do,” he said. “They push the envelope.”
Others credit Wu for altering the terms of the transportation funding debate. She initially broached the idea of a fare-free MBTA in 2018, and many dismissed it as a crackpot idea. But the idea has steadily gained traction. Former state senator Joe Boncore, who co-chaired the Legislature’s Transportation Committee before leaving Beacon Hill to run the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, filed legislation earlier this year calling for fare-free buses. And the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board backed a test of means-tested fares – fares based on the income level of the passenger – as a way to target fare relief to those who need it most.
Baker on Wednesday opposed a fare-free T. He said the transit authority is grappling with a loss of ridership brought about by COVID and the uncertainty about the future of work. “At this point in time we don’t know what the future of the ridership at the T is going to look like. I think that’s going to take a few more months to work out. But in the meantime the T has resources to continue to operate its capital program and to continue to operate its system overall,” he said.“The most important thing we need to do with the T is continue to make sure that the way it is operating is consistent with the way people are using it,” Baker said. “I don’t support the idea that the T should be fare free. I think the T should work and work well for people and be affordable.”
Mariano didn’t jump on the fare-free bandwagon. “The T is extremely important to the cities that I represent and I think I can’t say more emphatically that the issues with the T are with service and the maintenance of the facilities that we have,” he said. “As far as ridership, the governor raises some good points….so we need some time. In the meantime, we need for the T to constantly update the maintenance schedules and the performance schedules.”