BOSTON, MBTA, and federal transportation officials plan to meet later this month to see if they can resolve regulatory roadblocks preventing the city and the T from moving ahead with a two-year test of fare-free buses on three routes.
A city spokesperson said the mayor is optimistic the pilot project will be moving forward soon and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the three parties are working together to find a solution.
“There’s a challenge to overcome,” Poftak said. “We’re on a path to figure this out.”
Given the optimism on both sides, the negotiations could lead to some sort of resolution that will allow the pilot project to move forward in some way. What’s unclear is whether the pilot, even if it succeeds in attracting more riders, will be expanded.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu first broached the idea of a fare-free MBTA on the CommonWealth Codcast in 2018 when she was a city councilor. At the time, the idea seemed mostly aspirational. “In my dream world, I think the absolute ideal would be if we found a way to make public transportation free for residents,” she said.
The idea gained momentum during the race for mayor last year and now has become one of the mayor’s signature issues. Federal COVID relief aid has made a test of the concept possible. Wu wants to use $8 million of the city’s federal aid money to reimburse the MBTA for lost fare revenue during the pilot.
“The two-year investment will allow the city of Boston and transit partners to measure the benefits of fare-free bus service, such as increased ridership, faster buses, less traffic, and business development along the route; ensure that word spreads across neighborhoods; and provide the opportunity for riders to integrate fare-free lines into their daily routines,” a Wu spokesperson said. “This will set the foundation for Mayor Wu to build regional and state-level momentum for fare-free public transit, starting with buses.”
A two-year pilot would extend into the beginning of the next governor’s term in office. With Baker bowing out of this year’s race for governor, the next governor is likely to be a Democrat and someone more inclined to eliminating fares.
Gov. Charlie Baker isn’t a big fan of a fare-free MBTA. Baker said in October that he doesn’t support eliminating fares. He hasn’t blocked fare-free experiments as long as lost revenue is replaced with some alternative source.
Members of the past and current MBTA oversight boards also oppose eliminating fares. They favor a more targeted approach to reducing the cost of using the T. Instead of making service free to everyone, they support charging lower fares to people with lower incomes — something the T calls means-tested fares.
With the two-year fare free pilot, the T wouldn’t have to forego the revenue to give it a try. The challenge to overcome is the two-year length of the pilots. Federal Transit Administration guidelines say pilot projects become permanent if they run longer than six months and permanent fare changes require an equity analysis to determine if they have a disparate impact on riders. T officials have said they are not worried about disparate impact from eliminating fares, but they are worried there could be disparate impact if the fares are resurrected at the end of the two-year pilot when the money runs out.
Wu said on a radio talk show recently that the Federal Transit Administration has waived the equity analysis requirement many times in the past. She indicated the circumstances here are favorable for a waiver, and said she raised the issue with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on a recent trip to the White House.
“Providing fare free public transit is not going to create inequities in hurting community,” she said. “This is one example where I believe the rule shouldn’t even be applied to begin with.”
A spokesperson for the FTA did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Poftak said the T is exploring a number of ways to make the fare-free routes work. He indicated a waiver is one option, but he didn’t sound hopeful on that front. “We have sought waivers in the past. We haven’t had a great deal of success,” he said.