Wu quickly expanding reach of fare-free transit

Moving quickly to fulfill a campaign promise, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Thursday described her proposal to expand a fare-free bus pilot as a way to “reshape what’s possible” and set a new tone for policymakers as they consider the role of public transit.

In her second full day as mayor, Wu said her administration’s plan to run the Route 23, Route 28 and Route 29 MBTA bus lines free of charge for two years would help bring more riders back to a public transit system still reeling from the pandemic’s impacts while reducing congestion on the roads and improving access to essential services for wide swaths of the city.

The proposal from Wu, who has long called for eliminating fares across public transit, would use $8 million in federal funding to replace revenue for the duration of the program, and city councilors have indicated they plan to advance the initiative.

Wu’s push would expand on a four-month pilot former Acting Mayor Kim Janey launched to eliminate fares on the Route 28 bus, which runs from Mattapan through parts of Dorchester and Roxbury to Ruggles Station.

During that ongoing program, according to Wu, the Route 28 line has emerged as the highest-ridership route in the T’s system with nearly as many commuters as before COVID-19 hit. That stands well above the system as a whole, where bus crowds average about 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“Bostonians have already voted with their feet to show what works, so expanding this program to include the 23 and the 29 and extending it from four months to 24 months is an important first step in Boston’s journey toward a brighter, more reliable transit future,” Wu said.

With her proposal to eliminate fares on a trio of popular bus routes for the next two years, Wu is pursuing a policy shift that has drawn some skepticism on Beacon Hill but has already proved popular and possible in other parts of Massachusetts.

The city of Lawrence has covered the costs of running three Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus routes without fares since 2019.

And at the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, which serves the state’s second-largest city, officials voted unanimously on Thursday to keep a pandemic-era fare-free service program in place until January 2023, according to a Telegram & Gazette report.

“It was really important not just to do this for a series of a few months or even a year, but to follow the mold that Lawrence has already paved for us when they launched their free bus pilot for a length of two years to give times for people to adjust their routines, to give time for small businesses to make important decisions about signing leases and for employees seeking jobs to know that this wouldn’t just be a three-month or a six-month stint,” Wu said.

The program would be funded with $8 million that Boston received in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, a plentiful but nonrecurring source of revenue.

City Council President Matt O’Malley, who joined Wu and other elected officials at a Thursday press conference, said the mayor’s appropriation order to fund the fare-free buses “will pass the council.”

“It’s not only about allowing better access. It’s removing passenger cars from the road, which will then in turn lower greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles. It’s about having less wear and tear on the roads, it’s about getting people to work, it’s about getting people to medical appointments, it’s about equity, it’s about so many things,” O’Malley said. “It truly is just the beginning.”

The trio of bus routes all fall entirely within the city of Boston. The Route 23 runs from Ashmont through Dorchester to Ruggles, and the Route 29 links Mattapan and Roxbury.

Wu said it was “quicker to coordinate” a pilot program that did not affect any other municipalities, but her eyes are already on expanding fare-free offerings to additional MBTA buses that cross from Boston into other cities and towns, such as the Route 66 that carves a path from Nubian Square through Brookline to Harvard Square and the Route 116 from East Boston to Revere.

Wu for years has positioned herself as an opponent of transit fare hikes and supporter of “freeing the T” altogether.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed ridership and complicated its budget outlook, the MBTA typically brought in about one-third of its total revenue from fares. That stream of funding – budgeted at more than $670 million in fiscal year 2019 – would need to be made up elsewhere to keep operations flowing without fares.

For Gov. Charlie Baker, such a system could impose an unfair burden on taxpayers whose dollars might replace fare revenue but who do not regularly ride the MBTA or an RTA.

“Somebody’s going to have to come up with a lot of money from somebody, and I do think if the city of Boston is willing to pay to give free T to the residents of the city of Boston, that’s certainly worth the conversation, I suppose,” Baker said in a television interview this month. “But I don’t see a reason why you would expect people who live on the Cape, on the North Shore, in central or western Mass. who will never be anywhere near the T except on very rare occasions – why they should pay to give everybody in Boston a free ride does not make any sense to me.”

Taxpayers statewide already fund a significant portion of the MBTA’s operations, with the agency receiving a dedicated share of state sales tax revenue typically worth more than $1 billion.

The House and Senate both voted in January to call for the T to launch a low-income fare pilot program, an issue that has long been subject to study at the agency with little concrete action.

Wu said she discussed her fare-free pilot initiative when she met with Baker on Wednesday, recounting a “great conversation.”

“We are putting forward the funding through the City Council’s control of ARPA funds as a way to show and create the proof that this deserves and requires larger investment,” she said.

Whether Wu has the political capital to shift thinking about fare-free transit in the corner office or in the Legislature remains to be seen. But in the opinion of LivableStreets Alliance Stacy Thompson, Boston does not need to wait for support from the state or from the MBTA to press forward on reimagining transit.

“This is not pie-in-the-sky. These are reasonable, achievable, affordable steps to improve transit service and make us a national leader in transit,” Thompson said. “We need to dispel the myth that we need to choose between free service and great service. We can have both and we are implementing both.”

The push for a fare-free MBTA could also get a boost if voters embrace a proposed income surtax on the wealthy that will appear as a question on the November 2022 ballot. Estimates indicate the plan could bring in enough money to effectively replace the entire stream of MBTA fare revenue, although the demands on those funds will extend far beyond just the transit authority.

Supporters have projected the 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million could generate up to $2 billion annually, and the question’s text calls for the funding to go to transportation and education, although opponents of the tax say it will be used for general government spending.

Democrat gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing is among those who have called for using revenue from the income surtax, should it pass at the ballot box, to eliminate public transit fares.