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OPINION

Free bus is tempting, but low-income fares better address affordability

A low-income fare program would provide lower cost, perhaps free, access to all MBTA services, a greater benefit to people for whom fares are a barrier.

A MBTA bus on Boylston St. in Boston.
A MBTA bus on Boylston St. in Boston.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

Public transit in Massachusetts should be affordable, especially for low-income households. Elected officials have proposed two possible solutions: Make buses free, and implement a means-tested, low-income fare program. While these options are not mutually exclusive, a low-income fare for the MBTA is a more holistic way to address affordability. Making buses free sounds simple and effective, but a number of considerations should inform the policy debate.

The situation is different for the T than the state’s 15 Regional Transportation Authorities because the T network is designed for bus riders to transfer to rapid transit. Of all the journeys on the bus and rapid transit network, about 30 percent involve bus-only. The vast majority of T riders do not exclusively take buses — and many trips are not possible only by bus.

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Low-income riders, and Gateway City residents, need affordable access to all T services, not just the bus. Making the entire T free would require replacing nearly $700 million annually in pre-COVID fare revenue and increasing operating and capital funds. The MBTA has recommended a low-income fare approach for commuter rail.

Most of the policy debate has centered on free buses for the T and RTAs. While there have been various cost estimates to do so, those estimates do not fully account for all potential costs. For the T, in addition to lost fares paid for local bus trips, estimates need to include express bus, pass sales, and paratransit (the Ride) impacts.

For the T to save money by not installing new fare collection equipment on buses, it would also have to make express service free. The loss of express-bus fare revenue would be compounded if some commuter rail riders switch to taking parallel free express buses. Free bus fares would also reduce sales of T passes. Imagine you buy a pass because its $90 monthly cost is less than you would pay for separate subway and bus-only trips. If the bus-only trips are free, buying a monthly pass might no longer make sense.

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The Federal Transit Administration has told transit agencies that if they make their fixed-route service free, they must also make paratransit for similar trips free. Effectively, free bus lines would make the Ride, the MBTA’s door-to-door service for people with disabilities, also free. Different fares based on the distance someone’s trip ends or starts from a subway station would create a confusing and inequitable experience for people with disabilities.

Making paratransit free results in both lost fares and the funds to serve additional trips. While the cost for operating bus service is generally the same regardless of the number of passengers on board, the cost to operate paratransit generally goes up with each additional passenger trip. If free fares increases usage of buses, the T doesn’t have to add additional service; however, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, all eligible paratransit trips must be served. The MBTA would need more funds to purchase vehicles and to serve additional trips.

People with disabilities need quality, affordable transportation on paratransit and on fixed-route services. Making paratransit free might not be the best way to allocate additional funds; members of the disability communities, working with the T and elected officials, should weigh the costs and benefits of how best to reduce transportation barriers.

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A low-income fare program would provide lower cost, perhaps free, access to all MBTA services, which is a greater benefit to people for whom fares are a barrier. The cost of the program is the reduced fare revenue and the funds for program administration. There are challenges setting up the administrative and technical systems for eligibility, but the state can leverage existing programs like SNAP or MassHealth. Participants would receive a special CharlieCard similar to the existing cards for seniors.

Free bus lines would increase ridership, but fares aren’t the only factor. Pre-COVID, 40 percent of full-fare pass holders never used a bus. Research shows that service quality is a key driver of bus ridership. The MBTA and city partners need to continue improving bus speed and reliability. Rather than free fares for all, additional resources should increase service and improve sidewalks and shelters at stops.

These are some of the considerations that officials should take into account when deciding on free buses or a low-income fare program.

Laurel Paget-Seekins is a former assistant general manager for policy at the MBTA.