Wu plans to extend fare free bus pilot

Says she would like to eliminate bus fares citywide

BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu intends to extend the free bus pilot that is currently scheduled to end at the end of next month and, if the decision were up to her, would like to see it expanded citywide.

At a Boston Civic Summit on January 13, Wu said the free fare pilot on three MBTA bus routes has worked well over the last two years, with the routes attracting more riders than any other lines in the city. The pilot, with the city reimbursing the T for lost fare revenue, is currently scheduled to end on February 29.

“We are going to keep it going,” Wu said at the summit, according to a recording on YouTube. “If it were up to me, we would have free bus citywide because that is the fastest way to move people, that is the most equitable way to move people. We need to figure out the revenue sources and that’s a larger conversation.”

The MBTA confirmed the agency is in discussions with the city on extending the pilot, but Wu’s spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the extension and how it would be funded. The city has been using $8 million in federal funds to pay for the first two years.

Wu’s comments come at an interesting policy time. At her State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, Gov. Maura Healey promised to establish a permanent, reduced fare for low-income T riders this year. As outlined by T officials last month, the agency is considering a half-price fare for passengers earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The proposed low-income fare would apply to all MBTA services, not just buses.

At an MBTA board meeting last month, Wu’s appointee to the board raised concerns that the presentation on a low-income fare didn’t consider eliminating fares entirely. “I would really like to see how much this is going to cost versus just making the fares free,” said the board member, Mary Skelton Roberts. “We need to compare apples to apples.”

Roberts was scheduled to expand on her comments during a taping of The Codcast on Thursday, but backed out early Wednesday evening saying the timing was not right.

Wu in the past has called for making all of the MBTA free to use, but her comments at the summit suggested that, like some transit advocates, she may be focused more immediately on making buses free. Dispensing with fare collection on buses speeds up service by allowing passengers to board quickly at all doors without presenting tickets or paying cash.

MBTA officials say the Boston free fare experiment has speeded up service and boosted ridership by more than 20 percent. But the officials say only about 2 percent of the new riders switched to the bus and stopped driving, with the rest coming from other MBTA transportation modes (subway, commuter rail, etc.) or migrating from walking and biking.

In a March 2021 report, the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center said transit advocates working with the Livable Streets Alliance concluded that eliminating fares on local buses would cost the MBTA $33.7 million in annual fare revenue. Another $6 million to $7 million would be lost if making buses free meant parallel-running paratransit had to be free, the report said.

An MBTA spokesperson didn’t estimate what foregoing fares would cost the T, but did pass along a financial document covering 2022 filed with the Federal Transit Administration. According to that document, the T spent $532 million on bus service and generated $55 million in fare revenue.