City councilors, activists push for reduced fares, more transit funding

Campaign revives debate over equity one year after the MBTA raised fares

Community advocates would like to MBTA to reduce or eliminate bus fares in low-income communities. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2020

A group of elected officials and community advocates on Wednesday revived a campaign to improve public transit and make it more affordable, calling for the reduction, or even the elimination, of MBTA fares and an increase in the gas tax to fund better service.

At a news conference at Nubian Square in Boston, City Councilors Kim Janey and Michelle Wu said they were marking the one-year anniversary of the MBTA’s most recent fare hike, the fourth in seven years. The increase sparked protests and has since led to calls to instead reduce fares and make bus rides free.

But a lot has changed since then. The police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black Americans has led to a widespread examination of racial imbalances in the United States, including in urban transportation and access to jobs. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the world, with transit systems adopting changes that have cost fare revenue.

The MBTA, for example, has effectively provided free bus rides by allowing riders to board through back doors to avoid interactions with drivers who oversee fare collection.

“What COVID has shown us is that we can have free buses,” said Janey, the council president. “I’m not looking for fare reductions. I want to see free buses on certain bus lines. Buses that go up and through the Black and brown community need to be free.”

The MBTA’s bus system has a higher proportion of minority and low-income riders compared to trains, the worst on-time performance of any transit mode, and Black bus riders spend an additional 64 hours a year commuting compared to white riders, researchers have found.

Transit advocates earlier this year said it would cost the T about $36 million a year to make all buses free, or about what a 1-cent increase in the gas tax would yield.

State officials have argued that number is suspect, saying the lost revenue would be higher if other commuters switched to buses to take advantage of free rides.

The MBTA has instead pledged to establish a discounted fare system for all low-income riders, adding to an existing program for low-income adults through age 25 called the YouthPass. But it has made scant progress after years of discussion.

In May, transit officials noted the collapse of ridership during the pandemic has made it harder to further reduce fares for low-income riders; even before then, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack had suggested other entities, such as local governments or nonprofits, should help pay for and administer a reduced-fare program.

Another option could be federal funding; US Representative Ayanna Pressley recently introduced a bill with Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey to provide funds to transit agencies that reduce fares.

Mela Miles, who leads the T Riders Union, said at Wednesday’s event that there is even more need for the T to reduce fares now because of the economic fallout from COVID-19.

“Today the issue is even exacerbated because of people’s loss of jobs,” she said.

MBTA officials have already questioned whether cutting fares during the pandemic would lead to unsafe levels of crowding. But at a public meeting of the agency’s oversight board, members directed officials to dismiss that thinking and continue working on a low-income fare program.

“The crowding question, I actually don’t think is a legitimate question, quite frankly,” board member Brian Lang said at the May meeting. “Because what are we saying? If you have money, you’re not a crowding problem. If you don’t have money, you are.”

The push for free or reduced fares has come, ironically, as the MBTA prepares to introduce a $930 million electronic fare collection system. T officials have noted the electronic system would be easier to reprogram for a reduced-fare system.

The MBTA has also taken a few actions that officials believe benefit low-income riders: eliminating the differential between fares paid with cash and those paid with CharlieCards starting this fall; permitting free transfers to buses and the Red Line for Fairmount commuter line riders; and expanding the discounts on the YouthPass to commuter rail.

At the event in Nubian Square Wednesday, state Representatives Nika Elugardo and Tommy Vitolo called for the state Senate to take up a transportation funding bill that was passed by the House in March. The measure includes a 5-cent gas tax increase and a new corporate tax structure to fund transportation projects.

Senate leaders once said they would consider a revenue package that was more explicitly aimed at encouraging motorists to take transit — including by providing funds to lower fares.

But the coronavirus hit in full force just days after the House took action, no such bill was ever unveiled, and the Senate has indicated it is less likely to consider a gas tax hike in the near future.

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