FTA appears to greenlight Boston’s fare-free bus trial
In statement, says concern raised by MBTA not a problem
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 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.