Both Boston mayoral candidates want ‘transit equity.’ Here’s where they differ on how to achieve it

Both Boston mayoral candidates acknowledge that the transit systems in the city are underfunded. Both say communities of color suffer from less reliable and often out-of-reach transit service. And both underscore that recent safety incidents, including July’s Green Line crash and September’s bloody Back Bay MBTA escalator malfunction, are unacceptable.

What they aspire to do to make transportation in Boston better — that’s where things differ slightly.

Councilor Michelle Wu wants to take away traffic enforcement from the Boston Police Department’s purview, while Councilor Annissa Essaibi George wants to keep police on traffic enforcement with expanded implicit-bias training. Wu wants the T to be free for everyone, while Essaibi George wants the T to be free for the people who most need it to be, such as students and seniors.

Wu has a long track record of successfully advocating for expanded transit service, while Essaibi George has prioritized other issues, like equity in Boston Public Schools.

Those contrasts were enough for a slate of heavy-hitting transit advocates to endorse Wu at a news conference at the Readville commuter line station Wednesday. They cited her longstanding presence in the trenches with them, fighting fare hikes and successfully pushing for more bus-only lanes and a free bus pilot program.

But on many fronts, Wu, an Orange Line user, and Essaibi George, a Red Line user, agree.

In her “Equity, Inclusion and Justice” agenda released this month, Essaibi George calls for adding bus-only lanes, reducing the speed limit city-wide to 20 miles per hour, improving bus stops with amenities like real-time arrival data, and increasing frequency on the commuter rail’s Fairmount Line. Wu has promoted some of the same ideas.

Wu wants to speed up construction of new dedicated bus lanes and protected bike lanes, in part by streamlining processes between the city’s Transportation Department and Public Works, and make citywide traffic-calming improvements like raised crosswalks, speed humps, and narrowing lanes.

The fact that a Boston mayoral campaign includes two candidates backing policies long sought by transit advocates is a win in itself, said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the executive director of the 128 Business Council and former member of the boards of directors for the state Department of Transportation and the MBTA.

“The biggest thing is it makes me incredibly happy they are talking about bus lanes,” she said. “It’s a complete sea change.”

The mayor of Boston doesn’t have the power to single-handedly improve the funding, access, or safety of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a state agency. But the city does control many roadways, crucial to creating protected bus and bike infrastructure. That control, combined with the power of heading the biggest city in New England, comes with pull, said Tibbits-Nutt.

“They have a lot of muscle, they have more muscle than anyone else,” she said. “The amount of riders they represent, they have an ability to bring along other municipalities.”

On Wednesday, advocates who gathered to endorse Wu voiced their support for making the T free for all riders, saying it’s time for the Legislature to find new sources of funding for the transit agency. As a first step, Wu proposes immediately expanding the current free 28 bus pilot project to include two other bus lines — the 66 and the 116 — using grant funding.

Essaibi George often knocks Wu’s “Free the T” slogan, saying she is prioritizing a policy that the mayor alone cannot implement. Essaibi George supports raising awareness about exiting MBTA fare subsidies and expanding a city program that earlier this year offered free or reduced MBTA and Blue Bikes passes to employees in certain main street districts.

Some policies Essaibi George supports fall outside of the mayor’s direct power, too, like increasing frequency on the Fairmount commuter rail line and electrifying trains and buses.

Wu has remained fairly consistent on her transportation policy stances over the last five years, while Essaibi George’s stances have evolved, according to a review of 2017, 2019, and 2021 candidate questionnaires from the Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition, which advocates for policies that reduce traffic-related deaths.

In 2017, Essaibi George opposed automated traffic enforcement measures, like speed cameras and red light cameras, saying, “I think that the presence of police officers on our streets and in our communities makes our city safer.” She had the same response in 2019, and also cited privacy concerns. But this year, she said she supports automated enforcement, though remains concerned about privacy.

The about-face came “after learning about how we can ensure our kids getting on and off school buses are kept safe,” said a campaign spokeswoman in an e-mail.

Similarly, in 2017, Essaibi George opposed charging an annual fee for residential parking permits. In 2019 and 2021, she supported charging households for their second residential parking permit, “excluding seniors, and residents living on fixed incomes and in poverty.”

Since 2017, Wu has supported automated enforcement and charging annual fees for residential parking permits.

Wu’s consistency won her the endorsement of big names in the Boston transportation scene Wednesday, including former state secretaries of transportation Jim Aloisi and Fred Salvucci, and Joseph Aiello, former chairman of the MBTA’s oversight board.

“Over the last six years, the leading voice coming out of the city of Boston, coming out of the communities, coming out of the business groups, coming from the environmental constituencies, has been Michelle,” said Aiello. “She sits at the table and does the hard work of getting everyone on board.”