As Free Transit Gains Momentum Across U.S., It's A Big Boston Mayoral Race Topic

As the 37 bus stops in downtown Lawrence, the driver swings open the door and puts his hand over the farebox.

"People are going to pay," the driver explains. "I say, no, no. This bus is free."

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A growing number of systems across the state and country are experimenting with making public transit free in an effort to improve service, reduce pollution and aid low-income riders.

The Worcester Regional Transit Authority, for instance, has been using federal pandemic relief money to offer fare-free bus service for more than a year. Recently, Brockton made rides free on summer weekends, in an attempt to help downtown businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 shutdown. Lawrence eliminated fares on three downtown routes in 2019, just before the pandemic hit.

Lawrence officials say the trial is working. Ridership has jumped nearly 25%, and the mayor recently announced plans to extend the pilot program for another two years. The city will pay Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority $450,000 to make up for the four years of lost revenue.

Carol Aquino, who rides the 37 bus in Lawrence to her job at the local hospital, says she used to have to shell out $30 for a monthly pass. But now the Lawrence resident says she can spend that money on other things. "Saves me money," Aquino says.

There's also growing momentum to bring free public transit to Boston. The issue has become a hot topic in the Boston mayoral campaign, where all the major candidates say they support some form of free fares.

Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who is running for a full term, has proposed waiving fares on a popular bus route through the heart of the city — traveling from Mattapan to Roxbury along Dorchester Avenue.

To be sure, making the 28 bus free has proven difficult. The city and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the bus, have spent months trying to work out the details. And even passengers waiting for the 28 at Nubian Square question how fares can be dropped.

“The buses' routes are going to become ... what? Free?” Tony Johnson asked skeptically. "How would it stay in business?"

Johnson’s brother Bobby liked the idea, but questioned why the city picked the 28 bus. “Why not somewhere more convenient like downtown?"

Some politicians want to go beyond the 28 and explore ways to make the entire MBTA bus system free, which would cost $60 million a year in lost revenue, or even drop fares on trains and other modes of transit, which could come to much more.

“Let’s start with buses and go from there," said City Councilor Michelle Wu in a campaign video. "Public transportation should be free.”

Wu first publicly proposed making the T free nearly three years ago and has made it a centerpiece of her mayoral campaign.

Other politicians have made similar efforts to make mass transit free at the state and national level.

State Sen. Will Brownsberger (D-Belmont), one of the most influential Democrats on Beacon Hill, argues that getting rid of bus fares would speed up service, allowing riders to use any door and eliminating queues of drivers waiting to pay.

"That’s good for the operation of the bus, especially during rush hour," Brownsberger says.

Brownsberger adds that free fares would reduce idling at stops, cutting down on air pollution.

The MBTA is working on a different solution to the issue: a new automated fare collection system where passengers could tap credit cards or phones and use any door. But the projected cost has ballooned to $1 billion, and that's money critics say could be used to help fund free fares instead.

A bill pending on Beacon Hill would require the T and regional transit authorities to implement fare-free pilot programs.

Meanwhile, some Massachusetts politicians are pushing for federal funding to support such projects, nationwide.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey have introduced "The Freedom to Move Act," a $5 billion grant program to help transit systems go fare-free.

“It’s a matter of justice, economic, environmental and also racial justice," Pressley says. "I really see transit as the center of all of these issues, and our bill would really allow everyone to move freely.”

Many cities across the country have already used pandemic funding to help temporarily drop fares. But some have already begun charging again as they use up the federal money, citing the cost.

An MBTA spokesman says the agency believes the best way to boost ridership is to offer better service. He noted the MBTA spent nearly $2 billion on capital improvements in the latest fiscal year alone.

David Bragdon, executive director of TransitCenter in New York City, says most systems have found they must charge passengers to maintain reliable service.

Bragdon argues it’s better to offer discounts to low-income riders than do away with fares altogether.

“Every other country in the world has better transit than the United States does," he says, "and the way they have that is the tried and true fundamental way of providing abundant good transit.”

Roughly one-third of the MBTA’s annual revenue comes from fares racked up on subways, ferries and buses. That’s money T officials say would be tough to replace.