Wu’s fare-free T: Fanciful notion or strategic thinking?

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.

Jim Aloisi, the former secretary of transportation and a passionate Wu supporter, said Wu is leading a very important discussion the likes of which Beacon Hill has never seen before.  He said Wu frames the issue as free fares, but it’s really a discussion about equity and budget realities. 

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.”

BRUCE MOHL 

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

 

Vaccine deadline passes: The Baker administration says 1,571 state workers have not complied with a vaccine mandate, but no one was let go so far. The governor said his staff is reaching out to those who haven’t complied to confirm their vaccine status. A statement put out by the administration hailed the 95 percent compliance rate and predicted no significant staffing shortages in the near term. Read more.

OPINION

More electric car incentives: Rep. Joan Meschino of Hull and Alli Gold Roberts of Ceres say the state’s electric vehicle rebate needs to increase and expand if Massachusetts is going to meet its climate change goals. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

Advocates are upping the pressure on lawmakers to rework a proposed Senate redistricting map covering Brockton in order to increase the clout of Black voters in the majority-Black city. (Boston Globe

Lawmakers hear pleas to provide more funding to recovery schools, which help teenagers struggling with addiction stay sober. (Eagle-Tribune)

The Senate plans to vote on a bill that would mandate education on genocide in middle and high schools. (Patriot Ledger)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals is reporting encouraging results from a new treatment it has developed for Type 1 diabetes. (Boston Globe

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Washington State University’s head football coach, who was paid $3.2 million a year and was  the highest-earning public employee in the state, was fired along with four assistant coaches for not complying with the university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. (Washington Post

ELECTIONS

A new Suffolk University poll shows Michelle Wu with a huge, 32-point lead over Annissa Essaibi George in the Boston mayor’s race, the exact same margin as a MassINC Polling Group survey released last week. (Boston Globe

Joan Vennochi says Wu is running a campaign largely devoid of specifics. (Boston Globe

A grand jury has reportedly heard testimony about potential campaign finance violations by Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons and state Sen. Ryan Fattman in connection with campaign spending by the state party on behalf of Fattman’s wife, Stephanie Fattman, the Worcester County register of probate. (Boston Globe

Rep. Paul Mark of Peru, facing the potential elimination of his seat in redistricting, announces a run for the Senate seat currently held by Adam Hinds, who is running for lieutenant governor. (Berkshire Eagle)

EDUCATION

Lawrence High School will institute new safety measures including an increased police presence and staggered dismissal times after an uptick in fights and arrests. (Eagle-Tribune)

Football players at Cathedral High School in Fall River say one or more players for St. John Paul lI of Hyannis used racial epithets during a recent game, prompting St. John to put a hold on its football program while an investigation is conducted. (Cape Cod Times)

Framingham State University is launching a digital humanities center. (MetroWest Daily News)

TRANSPORTATION

Washington’s Metro system pulled 748 subway cars from service before the Monday morning commute as federal investigators scrutinize a surge in train-alignment “failures” and the derailment of one train at least three times in a single day last week. The loss of nearly 60 percent of the subway system’s cars paralyzed service. The National Transportation Safety Board warns other transit systems may face similar problems. (New York Times)

AAA Massachusetts said the price of a gallon of gas hit $3.27 last week, up from $3.10 last month and $2.10 a year ago. (State House News Service)

PASSINGS

Charles Ryan, who was Springfield’s mayor in the 1960s and again in the 2000s, dies at 94. Ryan is remembered as a champion of public libraries and a leader who rescued the city from the brink of bankruptcy. (MassLive)