Wu’s $8m fare-free bus plan hits snag
Mayor looking for workaround with the MBTA
BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu is still hoping to launch fare-free buses for two years on three MBTA routes, but it appears her proposal has hit a major snag.
Federal Transit Administration guidelines say transit agencies cannot run pilot transportation projects longer than six months, and the MBTA is wary of going beyond that time frame unless it has a permanent source of funding in place. Wu’s fare-free proposal relies on $8 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, which will eventually run out.
The snag first surfaced last week at a subcommittee meeting of the MBTA Board, where a top MBTA official said pilot projects can only run for six months before they have to be made permanent or shut down, per rules of the Federal Transit Administration. Prior to an initiative being made permanent, a transit system must conduct an equity analysis; T officials say doing away with fares on select bus routes would not trigger any equity concerns but reinstating the fares after their funding runs out could trigger an inequitable finding under current FTA rules.
Wu said on Monday that she heard about the six-month restriction late last week and is working with the MBTA in an attempt to resolve the situation so the three bus pilots can move forward. One of the three, a fare free Route 28 bus, initially launched on August 29 and is scheduled to end December 31. Under Wu’s proposal, which was approved by the Boston City Council, the Route 28 pilot would run another two years, along with new fare free service on the No. 23 and No. 29 buses. The three buses serve parts of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
MBTA officials say the Federal Transit Administration offered some leeway on the length of pilot projects during the early stages of the pandemic but that flexibility is now gone.
Officials at the Federal Transit Administration had no immediate comment.
The current availability of federal funds is extending the discussion about fare-free buses beyond Boston. Cambridge and Brookline are considering using federal funds to make several MBTA bus routes running through their municipalities free, and the Worcester and Merrimack Valley regional transit authorities have already voted to extend existing fare free bus routes well beyond six months.
One possible way around the FTA restriction would be to exclude the T from direct involvement in the pilot. Instead of having the T eliminate fares on the three bus routes and be reimbursed by the city for the lost revenue, the city could buy passes from the T and distribute them to riders who use the three bus routes. That’s similar to the way Boston handles student passes, which are purchased at a discount and then distributed by the city to students.
The T declined to get into the specifics of its discussions with the city. “The MBTA has initiated discussions with the city of Boston regarding the vote by the City Council and the mayor’s intention for the funds, including how those intended uses would be viewed by the Federal Transit Administration,” the transit agency said in a statement.Wu said her administration has been talking to the T about the length of the pilots and the connection to the transit authority’s paratransit service known as The RIDE. In addition to paying the T for lost fare revenue, the city is also paying for the T’s lost paratransit revenue. Paratransit service in a specific area cannot be priced at a higher rate than public transit in the area; by eliminating fares on a particular bus route the T has to eliminate paratransit fares within three-quarters of a mile of the bus route.
Asked how the city will deal with the Federal Transit Administration guidelines, Wu said her administration is working on a solution.