MBTA board hears gloomy report on fare options

Fare-free bus offered no savings to most riders, T says

THE  MBTA board of directors took no action Thursday on moving forward with any sort of alternative fare proposal after hearing a report from T staff that raised serious questions about the value of Boston’s fare free bus pilot and the challenges of introducing a low-income fare statewide.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is introducing a fare free experiment on three MBTA bus routes on Tuesday using $8 million in federal aid money, but T officials said data obtained from an ongoing test of the concept on one of those routes indicated two-thirds of the riders saved no money using it. The riders didn’t save any money because they used the bus to connect to other parts of the transit system where they had to pay fares.

The lack of savings highlights one of the problems with eliminating fares on a single bus route or even all buses — many riders use buses to connect to subways or commuter rail where they have to pay fares anyway so a free bus ride doesn’t really save them any money.

MBTA officials released the surprising information on the usage patterns of riders on the Route 28 bus, which went fare free in August, during a presentation on alternative fare proposals to the MBTA board. The board is facing growing pressure to explore a way to reduce fares for low-income riders and there is an emerging policy debate about the best way to do it or whether to do it at all.

Wu is pushing experiments with fare free buses, while many transportation advocates favor the creation of a means-tested fare — basically a discount for low-income riders.

The previous T board, at its last meeting in June, directed staff to come up with a pilot program to test the low-income fare concept and present it to the new board in October. No pilot was presented in October, and at Thursday’s meeting of the board T staffers only provided an overview of the various alternative fare options. The board listened and asked some questions, but didn’t take any action and didn’t signal whether any action would be taken.

Lynsey Heffernan, the T’s assistant general manager for policy and planning, provided new information on the Route 28 bus that has been running fare free since August. Citing ridership data and surveys, Heffernan said going fare free on the bus route boosted ridership by 22 percent, including 5 percent that would have used a car had they not taken the bus and 2 percent who wouldn’t have taken the bus trip without the free bus.

But Heffernan said the T’s data indicated those who saved money using the Route 28 bus were riders who used just that bus route, which runs between Ruggles and Mattapan Stations. She said 21 percent of riders saved more than $20 per month, 12 percent saved less than $20 per month, and 66 percent saved no money at all. Those who saved no money connected to the subway, commuter rail, or other buses where fares were required.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets, issued a statement on the MBTA’s report that did not address the lack of savings for two-thirds of the riders. Instead, he focused on how eliminating fares on the Route 28 bus saved some riders money, increased ridership, and speeded up service by reducing dwell time at bus stops by 20 percent.

“Expanded fare-free transit has the power to be a transformative force in Boston and cities around the world,” Franklin-Hodge said. “We are hopeful that the expansion of the pilot to include the 23 and 29 lines will help make riding public transportation easy and accessible while also reducing the city’s carbon footprint.”

Heffernan also outlined the cost of offering a means-tested, or low-income fare, on any service offered by the MBTA.  In her analysis, she assumed anyone making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for a half-priced discount and eligibility determinations would be made by a third party. She gave ballpark figures on ridership and cost, suggesting a low-income fare would attract as many as 70,000 new riders and cost between $59 million and $98 million a year to implement.

The cost, Heffernan said, could rise substantially if the higher ridership requires adding additional service. One of the biggest costs would come with the RIDE, the T’s paratransit service. Heffernan said the discount would lower the cost of paratransit service and drive up usage by 230,000 to 415,000 trips a year. Heffernan estimated the fare revenue loss would be less than $3 million, but the additional operating costs for the expensive-to-provide service would total somewhere between $25 million and $41 million.

Heffernan said it’s unclear if the T can afford a low-income discount given current projections of significant budget shortfalls in fiscal 2024.

For now, it appears municipalities are the ones inclined to experiment with fare reductions. Cambridge, Brookline, Watertown, and Salem are exploring subsidizing fare free bus routes in their communities, much as Boston has done. Heffernan said Somerville has approached the T about a means-tested fare — giving residents with low incomes prepaid fare cards usable on any transit service.

Heffernan raised concerns about an emerging patchwork approach to fares. “The staff have concerns about the equity and sustainability of municipally sponsored bus fares,” she said. “The staff is curious if that is the best approach.”

Betsy Taylor, the chair of the MBTA board, said it is fine to experiment with different fare approaches, but she said it would be best to go into the experiments with some standard for success.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Travis McCready, a member of the T board, said the presentation showed how complicated it is to design a fare reduction program. “We are basically building a brand new fare algorithm that is designed not to discriminate and not to have negative impacts on disadvantaged communities of color. And building that kind of algorithm takes time and it takes sensitivity,” he said. “That being said, I also don’t want us to get caught in analysis paralysis. I wonder aloud to the general manager and my colleagues whether there is at some point a drop-dead date where we have some sort of sense of go, no-go on something.”

No one on the board responded, so Taylor moved along to the next item on the agenda without any discussion of next steps.