FTA appears to greenlight Boston’s fare-free bus trial

The Federal Transit Administration issued a statement on Monday suggesting the agency would have little problem with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan to launch a two-year experiment with fare-free buses on three MBTA routes.

“MBTA and Mayor Wu have been working to resolve the city’s interest in providing fare-free buses, which, like all fare structures, is a local decision,” the statement said. “Title VI regulations requiring MBTA to conduct fare equity analyses should not hinder the agency or city from moving forward with changes to fare structures.” 

Wu has been pushing the two-year pilot to gather information and build support for expanding fare free service to other bus routes. The city has agreed to use $8 million in federal aid money to cover the MBTA’s loss of fare revenue, but the T has raised concerns about violating FTA guidelines if the pilot ends and fares have to be raised again. 

Under FTA guidelines, a pilot project is deemed permanent after six months. A permanent change in fares would require an equity analysis to determine if it is causing “a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”

The T isn’t worried that the elimination of fares on the three bus routes would cause a disparate impact. But it is concerned that, if the money runs out at the end of the pilot and fares are reinstated, an equity analysis would reveal disparate impact on the riders using the buses by in effect singling them out to pay higher fares.

The city, the MBTA, and the FTA are planning to meet this month to discuss the situation. Wu even raised the issue with US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on a recent trip to Washington.  

But a statement issued by the FTA on Monday in response to questions from CommonWealth suggested the MBTA’s concern may not be a problem at all if the fare just returned after the end of the two-year pilot.

“Reinstating a fare that is in existence on the rest of the bus system is unlikely to show a disparate impact. Yet, if the new fare were higher than other bus fares, transfers were treated differently, or some other difference between the fares on these three routes and the rest of the system were introduced, that might result in a disparate impact that would need to be addressed,” the FTA statement said.

The agency also said a transit agency can implement a fare change even if the change has disparate impact “if it has a substantial legitimate justification for the fare change and can demonstrate that no alternatives would have a less disparate impact.” 

Wu has indicated she might seek a waiver from the disparate impact guideline, but the FTA statement suggested that would probably be unnecessary. The statement said the FTA receives fewer than 10 waiver requests in a typical year. 

MBTA officials did not comment on the FTA statement, declining to say whether there are other issues of concern with the city’s fare-free bus proposal.



Staff absences: Many Massachusetts school districts are losing teachers to COVID and facing a challenge in remaining open. In Brockton, for example, school officials determined Monday morning that 58 staff members would be out at the high school, so the high school closed at least for the day. Some other school systems are facing similar challenges. Read more.

In-person only: Gov. Charlie Baker insists on in-person learning and says virtual classes are not acceptable. “The rules here are pretty simple,” he said Monday morning in Salem. “We count in-person school as school. If a school district is not open at some point over the course of the year, they can use snow days until they run out of snow days but they do need to provide their kids with 180 days of in-person education this year.” Read more.

New climate change policies: The Baker administration, buffeted by setbacks on hydroelectricity and transportation emissions, last week approved new solar incentives and truck emission regulations. Read more


Child care apprenticeships: David Jordan, the president of the Seven Hills Foundation in Worcester, says apprenticeships could play a key role in dealing with the shortage of child care. Read more.





House Speaker Ron Mariano says in a statement that he wants information on how Gov. Baker used $200 million that the Legislature gave his administration to cope with any surge in COVID cases. (State House News Service)

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would provide free breakfast and lunch to all public school students in the state. (Boston Herald


New Bedford area COVID testing sites, like many around the state, see long lines and lengthy waits. (Standard-Times) Meanwhile, the Baker administration is talking to Springfield mayor Domenic Sarno about deploying the National Guard to help address long lines for testing, leading to people getting turned away at the Eastfield Mall. (MassLive)

Mayor Michelle Wu swore in members of the Boston City Council for a new two-year term, with noisy protesters upset with new vaccine mandates in the background. (Boston Globe

Holyoke at-large City Councilor Israel Rivera steps down from his job with the city’s school system to avoid a fight over an ordinance barring councilors from also working for the city. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer delivers a state of the city address, laying out her priorities and how she plans to spend federal infrastructure aid. (Berkshire Eagle)

As she leaves the Boston City Council, Andrea Campbell reflects on the inefficiency of municipal government and its top-down approach. (Dorchester Reporter)


St. Vincent nurses vote 487-9 in favor of approving a new contract, ending their 300-plus day strike. (Telegram & Gazette)


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says he is pushing ahead with voting rights legislation and likely to pursue rules changes, including some modification of the filibuster, to get the measure passed. (NPR)

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of failed blood-test company Theranos, was found guilty of four of 11 charges of fraud in a case that “came to symbolize the pitfalls of Silicon Valley’s culture of hustle, hype and greed.” (New York Times


Longmeadow Democratic state Sen. Eric Lesser announces a run for lieutenant governor. (MassLive)

Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, pondering a gubernatorial run, raised $400,000 last month, giving her $3.6 million in the bank. (GBH)

Some big corporations paused donations to elected officials in the wake of last January’s contested vote over certification of the presidential election, but several, including Waltham-based Raytheon, have quietly resumed making donations to members of Congress who refused to certify President Biden’s election. (Boston Globe


The tech boom is coming to Somerville’s Union Square – and washing away some of its artsy character in the process. (Boston Globe

Supply chain disruptions and backups at major US ports are creating a small opening for New Bedford’s port to gain some business with smaller “break-bulk” shipments. (New Bedford Light


Nearly 300 Quincy students sign an online petition seeking permission to learn remotely during the COVID surge. (Patriot Ledger)


Jury trials are put on hold for the month of January due to rising COVID cases. (Salem News)

An attorney who filed multiple lawsuits against school districts’ mask mandates, including in Hingham, Carver, and West Bridgewater, has his license suspended by the New Hampshire Supreme Court for mishandling client money. (Fosters Daily Democrat)

Attorneys for former Fall River mayor Jasiel Corriea, who is scheduled to report to federal prison next Monday to begin serving a six year sentence, were granted a two-month extension, to February 28, to file appeal briefs in his federal corruption case. (Herald News


Joshua Benton of the Neiman Journalism Lab examines “resistance journalism.”

Margaret Sullivan criticizes the news media for failing to make democracy-under-siege a central focus of their reporting. (Washington Post)

The Bedford Citizens’ annual ad-filled guide to Bedford garners praise from Editor & Publisher. (Media Nation)