THE CITY OF BOSTON’S plan to launch a two-year test of fare-free buses on three MBTA bus routes may run afoul of federal rules limiting pilot projects to just six months.
Lynsey Heffernan, the MBTA’s assistant general manager for policy and transit planning, told a subcommittee of the transit authority’s board on Thursday that the Federal Transit Administration doesn’t allow pilot projects to extend beyond six months. At the six-month mark, she said, the federal agency requires transit authorities to either end the pilot or make it permanent.
Heffernan said the Federal Transit Administration provided some additional leeway during the height of COVID, but that no longer applies.
The city of Boston launched a fare-free pilot on the Route 28 bus roughly four months ago and the city council recently approved a proposal from Mayor Michelle Wu to spend $8 million of the city’s federal aid money to extend that pilot another two years and to add two more two-year pilots on the No. 23 and No. 29 buses.
“The MBTA has started discussions with the city regarding the vote by the city council and the mayor’s intention for the funds, including how those intended uses would be viewed by the FTA,” said Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the T.
Straus frowns on RMV giving T hiring help
Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he expressed concerns to the MBTA about using the database of the Registry of Motor Vehicles to help recruit additional bus drivers and doesn’t think it will happen again.
The MBTA plans to pare back service on 31 bus routes and the Mattapan trolley to better reflect the agency’s current driver staffing shortages. It is also taking a number of steps to hire more bus drivers, including reaching out to 30,000 commercial driver’s license holders using data supplied by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Using the Registry database, Straus said, means the MBTA could be soliciting drivers working for other public agencies, such as regional transit authorities across the state. He also said the Registry’s use of its database to help track down potential drivers for the T raises privacy issues.
“This just doesn’t leave a comfortable feeling,” he said. “Commercial driver’s license holders probably didn’t think they were signing up for a marketing campaign.”
Straus backs T on service cut approach
The House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee said the MBTA’s decision to pare back service in response to a shortage of bus drivers makes sense.
Rep. William Straus said the T is currently dropping trips because it doesn’t have enough drivers, which inconveniences passengers who can’t be sure their bus will arrive. By cutting back service to roughly 90 percent of pre-COVID levels, Straus said, the T is actually improving service by assuring riders their bus will actually arrive as scheduled.
The business group A Better City on Wednesday decried the service cuts, calling them a step in the wrong direction. Rick Dimino, president and CEO of the business group, urged the T to do everything possible to restore service to pre-COVID levels. He even said it may make sense for the MBTA to seek a waiver from the Pacheco law to allow the T to bring in private bus operators to provide service.
Straus said he didn’t think A Better City’s call for privatizing bus service made sense. He said hiring private bus operators would take time, their buses are often not handicap accessible, and they are facing the same challenges in finding drivers as the T.
“You couldn’t implement that quickly,” he said. “The private bus companies are facing the same issues as the T.”