Cash cushion eyed to test fare-free bus rides

BOSTON (SHNS) – With the state’s coffers awash in unspent funds and the pandemic reshaping commuting patterns, a group of lawmakers and transportation advocates argued Wednesday that the time is right for Massachusetts to reimagine fares on its public transit systems.

Bills before the Transportation Committee would launch a pilot program offering fare-free bus rides on the MBTA and the state’s 15 regional transit authorities, make reduced-cost tickets available for passengers with lower incomes, or investigate eliminating T fares altogether.

Any of the options would cut into fare revenue that transit agencies factor into their budgets, but supporters say the transformation would reinvigorate ridership, ease the region’s infamous traffic, and cut greenhouse gas emissions, all while helping the systems better serve riders who depend on them most.

Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, told lawmakers that fare-free buses and low-income fare options are “mutually supportive and work well in tandem.”

“I can think of no other revenue source in Massachusetts that worsens inequality more for each dollar collected than bus fares,” Baxandall said. “I know of no other revenue source that’s more likely to be charged to low-income people who receive no discount and is more overcharged for an activity the commonwealth ostensibly seeks to encourage.”

One pair of bills before the committee (H 3403 / S 2340) would launch a one-year pilot program making bus routes free to some riders on the MBTA and all 15 RTAs.

The MBTA would be required to include at least 20 bus routes in the program, and RTAs would need to make fares free on at least one route with sizable pandemic-era ridership, though the agencies could opt to extend the pilot to every single bus line.

Two advisory groups, one for the T and the other for the RTAs, would oversee the year-long test run and examine its impact on ridership, transit access, equity, performance, cost savings and other factors.

“Our hope is by establishing a pilot program, we can test the proof of concept for a fare-free system,” said Rep. Christine Barber of Somerville, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We’ve all heard a lot of questions and critiques of a fare-free system, but it has not been piloted and closely studied, so we think this bill is a way of doing that.”

A single one-way bus trip on the MBTA costs $1.70, while a monthly local bus pass runs $55 and a LinkPass offering unlimited bus and subway travel is $90. Prices range across different RTAs, with several systems offering single-trip fares for about $1.25.

The idea of free transit has gained traction in some American cities and among transportation advocates, but it has not yet been embraced as state policy in Massachusetts. Rep. David LeBoeuf, a Worcester Democrat, said 39 other cities have piloted free bus service and that “every single one of them has actually shown increased ridership numbers.”

Some RTAs made buses free to riders during the COVID-19 pandemic as a safety measure to prevent close contact between riders and drivers. LeBoeuf said after the Worcester Regional Transit Authority implemented that policy, it observed higher ridership than other comparable systems.

In Boston, Mayor Kim Janey, City Councilor Michelle Wu and other elected officials have called for free buses. The city announced a pilot program on Tuesday that will allow all MBTA riders on the Route 28 bus between Mattapan and Ruggles to ride for free from Aug. 29 to Nov. 29.

MBTA officials in May estimated that offering buses free of fares on the current schedule could cost $117 million in the first year and $105 million annually in subsequent years while attracting between 5 million and 13 million additional riders. If the agency increased service to respond to the boosted demand, those costs could jump to $452 million in year one and $153 million each following year, officials said.

Transit systems across Massachusetts rely on bus fares as part of their annual budgets, but backers of the free-service proposal said the equity, environmental and rider access benefits outweigh any foregone revenue.

Systems also spend a substantial amount of money to uphold the fare system through ticket machines, enforcement of evasions and card fees. Baxandall said before the pandemic, Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority data showed the agency spent 77 cents on fare collection for every dollar it brought in via fares.

Several supporters noted the state has roughly $5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding yet to be allocated, suggesting Beacon Hill use that windfall to cover the costs of a pilot and then determine a funding mechanism in future years, perhaps using revenue from a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million, the fate of which voters will decide on the 2022 ballot.

“This is the right time, right now, for fare-free pilots,” Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, who filed the Senate bill, said. “Commuting patterns and work patterns are changing, so it may be more possible to change those patterns.”

A resolve from Somerville Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven (H 3619) would require the MBTA to pause work on a multi-year effort to overhaul fare collection while the state studies the viability of offering all T service free of charge. She said universal free service would serve as “a needed step toward economic and racial justice in the commonwealth” while also reducing carbon emissions.

Another bill would launch low-income fare options for transit riders (H 3526). The MBTA, which typically relies on system-wide fares for about a third of its operating revenue, has been exploring low-income fare options but has yet to implement a program.

Lawmakers approved a mandate to launch a low-income option as part of a transportation bond bill they passed in the dying moments of the 2019-2020 lawmaking session, but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed that language.

“More study is needed to understand how transit authorities can implement fare systems that depend on gathering information about riders’ incomes and to understand what the revenue loss would be and how that revenue would be replaced,” Baker wrote at the time. “No means-tested fares can be implemented until the MBTA and RTAs have a financially sustainable plan in place to replace the lost revenue.”

The House and Senate did not leave themselves enough time to override Baker’s veto, resetting the process. Six months into the current lawmaking session, legislative leaders have not publicly indicated if they have any plans to revive the low-income fare proposal.

Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus hinted action could be forthcoming, saying Wednesday, “I sense that the topic is not one that the Legislature is going to walk away from.”

Voicing support for both low-income fares and testing free bus service, Livable Streets Alliance Executive Director Stacy Thompson urged Beacon Hill to make the proposals a priority.

“We need the Legislature to act,” Thompson said. “We know that the administration vetoed your great work to advance low-income fares last session. We know the administration is not interested in moving forward with these fare-free pilots, and we know they are necessary, reasonable and achievable. We need the Legislature to join the folks that are here today to make progress and move this work forward.”