THE STATE’S 15 regional transit authorities, long considered a transportation afterthought on Beacon Hill, are suddenly all the rage.
RTAs, which operate local bus networks across the state outside the MBTA’s service territory, have long had a line item in the state budget. After adjusting for inflation, however, the state’s basic operating support for the RTAs actually declined 5 percent between fiscal 2016 and 2023, according to the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
But now the RTAs are poised to get a chunk of the $1 billion in projected revenue from the millionaire tax. In her budget proposal, Gov. Maura Healey proposed using $25 million from the millionaire tax money to support the RTAs. The House upped that number to $70 million, and the proposed Senate budget contains $100 million, a tenth of all projected funding from the new tax.
The $100 million in the Senate proposal includes $56 million for direct operating support, $25 million for innovation grants, $4 million for accessibility grants, and $15 million so each of the RTAs can launch six-month, fare-free pilots on their bus systems.
The Senate spending plan ultimately may not prevail when the final budget is hammered out, but it illustrates the growing interest on Beacon Hill in the RTAs and the desire to make them fare free.
Several RTAs have already gone fare-free using federal pandemic funding, with Worcester recently extending its fare-free bus pilot into 2024. The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority even took the fare boxes out of its buses. Ridership has increased and service has improved on the free transit options.
But, at some point, the federal money will run out and new funding will be needed. The Senate last year inserted $2.5 million in the budget for a brief fare-free experiment between Thanksgiving and New Year, and now the Senate is pushing funding for a six-month experiment. It’s the way Beacon Hill lays the groundwork for a funding expansion.
Phineas Baxandall, policy director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, says making RTA buses free attracts more riders, improves service, and is easy to implement. “It’s also relatively cheap to do,” he said.
The Senate proposal comes at a time of debate about how best to help low-income transit riders. In the MBTA service territory, many advocates favor a lower fare for low-income riders of buses, subways, ferries, and trains because most riders use multiple modes (not just buses) and it would target those who need assistance.
Others, like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, favor making the T’s buses and eventually all transit service free. Wu is using the city’s federal funding to make buses on three MBTA routes free as part of a two-year experiment.
Healey, when she was running for governor, vowed to implement a lower fare for low-income riders and establish a “pathway to fare-free buses.”
In her budget proposal, Healey included $5 million in startup costs for a low-income fare at the MBTA but no money for fare-free buses at the T or at the RTAs. The House, in its budget proposal, mirrored Healey’s approach, although it steered more millionaire tax money to the RTAs.
Is the Senate proposal a sign that sentiment is building on Beacon Hill for fare-free buses at the RTAs and a low-income fare at the MBTA?