Mayor Michelle Wu, who spent years as a city councilor and mayoral candidate pressing for free public transit, on Wednesday asked the Boston City Council for $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to eliminate fares on three MBTA bus lines for two years.
On her first full day in office, Wu said she wants the funds to be used to make the 23, 28, and 29 bus routes free for riders starting early next year, expanding a current fare-free pilot program on the 28 bus that expires at the end of December.
“Building on the fare-free 28 bus pilot created by Mayor Janey, we will expand access to transit across our neighborhoods, connecting more people to their schools, places of worship, small businesses, and community centers –– and easing congestion on our bus riders and drivers alike,” Wu said in a statement.
Several city councilors spoke in favor of immediately approving the funds Wednesday, but Councilor Andrea Campbell, who represents parts of Mattapan and Dorchester, objected, saying there are unanswered questions about the 28 pilot that need to be addressed first. Campbell said she is fully supportive of making these three bus routes free, but first wants a hearing on the issue where the public can weigh in.
The council’s COVID-19 recovery committee will hold a hearing on the funding, which Campbell said she would like to see happen before the next council meeting on December 1.
The current pilot program on the 28 bus route funded by the city of Boston using federal COVID-19 relief money was meant to be three months long, starting on August 29. But former acting mayor Kim Janey extended it an additional month, eliminating fares through Dec. 31, after the pilot came in under its budget of $500,000.
“The previous administration overpaid for that pilot. How much? By how much? We should all as fiscal stewards want an answer to that,” Campbell said. “That’s a legitimate question that I think should be addressed during a hearing where we can of course make that public.”
The three bus routes serve the neighborhoods of Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. The 23 bus runs from Ashmont to Ruggles, the 28 bus runs from Mattapan Square to Ruggles and the 29 bus runs from Mattapan Square to Jackson Square. All run on or intersect with Blue Hill Avenue, which the city has slated for center-running bus lanes.
The number of passengers has surged on the 28 bus since fares were eliminated. During the week of Oct. 25, the bus had 92 percent of its prepandemic weekday ridership, according to MBTA data analyzed by TransitMatters, a transportation advocacy group. That’s up from 68 percent during the last week of August.
The entire MBTA bus and subway system has 53 percent of prepandemic weekday ridership. That is, buses and subways in total still have just about half the weekday ridership they had before March, 2020.
Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA, said the agency is reviewing the mayor’s proposal and looks forward to discussions with the city.
Fare-free transit was a central issue in Wu’s campaign. Earlier this year Wu released a study about the benefits of creating a wider fare-free bus pilot, beginning with the 28, 66, and 116 buses. The 66 and 116 buses run through several jurisdictions, likely requiring buy-in from other municipalities, whereas the 23 and 29 buses run only inside Boston’s boundaries.
A 2019 report from the transportation advocacy group LivableStreets found that more than 59 percent of riders on the 23, 28, and 29 buses were low income and more than 96 percent were people of color.