Wu says 3-bus, fare free pilot to start next month
No explanation provided on lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiations
BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu said the number of fare free buses operating in Boston will be expanded from one to three next month as part of a two-year, $8 million city-funded pilot that she hopes will set the stage for making all bus routes free.
While the pilot is intended to be a test of the concept on the Route 23, 28, and 29 buses, Wu indicated she has already made up her mind that eliminating fares on buses across the city makes sense from an equity, mobility, climate, public health, environmental, and transit perspective.
Wu acknowledged the city will require financial assistance from the state and federal government to make good on her broader vision of making buses free at the T and across the state. She said that broader vision would cost roughly $60 million a year, with half of the amount needed to make MBTA buses free.
“It is really a small amount when you just look at the bus system,” Wu said at a press conference on Blue Hill Avenue Wednesday morning. “We know that public transit is a public good and it should be funded that way.”
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, who attended the press conference, didn’t take a stance either way, but said “there are some important questions about funding that would have to be answered.” The T itself is moving in a different direction, exploring the possibility of discounting fares for low-income riders rather than making service free to everyone.
The pilot gives Wu time to build support for her idea of fare-free buses and its two-year length means Gov. Charlie Baker, an opponent of eliminating fares, will be gone from office when it concludes.
Wu proposed the two-year, fare-free pilot after taking office in November, but it took months of negotiation with the MBTA to reach an agreement on how to proceed. It’s unclear why it took so long. T officials initially indicated they had concerns that a pilot extending beyond six months would run afoul of Federal Transit Administration guidelines regarding pilot fare projects. But Federal Transit Administration officials said that issue was resolved at a meeting on January 7 with the agency assuring both parties the two-year pilot and the possible restoration of fares at the end of it would not conflict with agency guidelines.
Wu referred to the pilot length issue on Wednesday in explaining the delay, while T officials refused to answer questions about what held up the agreement.
The three bus routes going fare free next month all service low-income communities in Roxbury and Dorchester and connect riders to four T stations at Ruggles, Jackson Square, Mattpan, and Ashmont. Wu noted all three routes intersect with Blue Hill Avenue at various points.Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets, said eliminating fares on the No. 28 bus starting in August has been a big success. He said the bus achieved a 20 percent reduction in boarding time by not having to collect fares and allowing passengers to board through all doors. With the elimination of fares, Franklin-Hodge said, the Route 28 bus attracted more riders than any other bus route on the MBTA system — roughly 12,000 riders a day, or about 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Peggy James, a regular rider on the No. 28 bus, called the elimination of fares a gift that keeps on giving. “When I get on the bus nowadays, with the free bus, everybody gets on, they’re calm, there’s no hassle, there’s no aggravation about having to stand in line, wait for someone with money to come on, just the teeny bit things that can piss, turn a person’s day a little sour. This is one of the best things that has happened in the city,” she said.