The push for free public transit in Boston, once a seemingly fanciful idea that has gained considerable political traction over the last year, may soon gain a real foothold, as Boston officials and the MBTA are developing a trial of free bus service in parts of the city.
The proposal, for now, is light on details, and there is no clear timeline for when the free service could begin. But city officials say they would like to run a pilot program in tandem with the final round of reopenings from the COVID-19 pandemic in parts of Boston that have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus, such as Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.
“Our focus is on equitable recovery from COVID. And as part of a larger set of initiatives the city has embraced to help Boston get back on its feet post-COVID, one of the things we are exploring is free fares on the MBTA system,” said Vineet Gupta, director of planning at the Boston Transportation Department.
Gupta added that the pilot program would likely operate either on specific bus lines or corridors that serve multiple lines. But he stressed that the plan is still early in development and declined to provide more specifics.
Still, even a trial would demonstrate the growing salience of the fare-free concept — an idea that, if implemented widely, would have major implications for the role of the transit system in Greater Boston and the finances that drive it. It would also be a nod at equity goals in the aftermath of the racial justice protests of 2020, as low-income riders and communities of color are the most dependent on the bus system.
And maybe most immediately, it could become a significant factor in the mayoral race this year, as several candidates have been pushing for a free-fare policy — including Acting Mayor Kim Janey, as well as City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Councilor Michelle Wu, who popularized the idea amid the MBTA’s 2019 fare hike.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, by contrast, has been reluctant to embrace the free-fare idea, even as officials discuss the Boston pilot.
But although the mayor’s office has little direct control over the MBTA, Janey’s support for the idea appears to be driving the state-run agency to at least consider a test.
“I think the city is an important partner of ours,” said Lynsey Heffernan, the T’s acting assistant general manager for policy. “They are not the first ones to be asking about free bus. So I think we are trying to be open to other ways of thinking.”
Heffernan said the MBTA prefers the idea of offering fare discounts to low-income riders across the entire system, which the agency has been talking about since at least 2015 but has yet to implement. At a recent public meeting, MBTA board member Chrystal Kornegay suggested that the long struggle to implement that discount may put the agency at risk of getting caught “a little flat-footed” as the fare-free idea gains ground.
The primary issue for both the low-income discounts and the free service has been figuring out how to replace the lost fares. Boston says it is willing to put up some money for the pilot, though Gupta, the city official, pointedly noted the MBTA could also put some of its surplus funding from federal COVID relief packages to the program.
Heffernan, meanwhile, said the city’s willingness to help pay is what “will allow us to open up this conversation as a possibility.”
Transit advocates note that the MBTA already has a free bus: the inbound side of the Silver Line from Logan International Airport. The Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, pays for those buses as a way to discourage traffic at the airport.
The cost of running free buses is also in dispute. The T spends more than $400 million a year to operate the bus network and says it collects more than $100 million a year in bus fares. But advocates argue the T would lose only about $35 million from free buses, because many riders transfer to the subway and wind up paying fares there.
The MBTA has also noted that free fares could have other, less obvious financial effects. More service, for example, could result in more riders, and thus the need for more drivers, buses, and places to store them — though the agency is already planning to overhaul and expand bus facilities.
An even more subtle but costly effect could come from the agency’s paratransit system, the Ride. MBTA officials argue that federal rules may require the agency to offer free door-to-door car and van service for passengers with disabilities if they eliminate fares on buses, a change that could significantly grow the T’s expenses.
The per-rider subsidy on the bus has historically been higher than the subway and the ferry, but lower than the commuter rail and the Ride.
Supporters say free buses would have several benefits if implemented across the network — such as providing financial relief to riders, since the bus system has the highest rate of low-income passengers compared to the subway and commuter rail.
It could also lead to higher ridership, as seen in Lawrence when regional buses in the city began testing free fares. However, some research has indicated that free bus experiments in other locations draw relatively few riders, and some national surveys of transit riders have shown they value good service over lower fares.
Phineas Baxandall, a transportation analyst with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center think tank who supports free fares, acknowledged that higher ridership could lead to higher costs. But he said that was a poor way to consider the proposal.
“You can define that as a cost, or you can define that as an enormous policy achievement,” Baxandall said. “In the face of possibilities of actually increasing transit ridership, it shouldn’t be seen as just a cost.”
Jarred Johnson, director of the local organization Transit Matters, said he would support a free-fare test, but noted that operating some buses without fares while charging on others could strike some riders as unfair.
“At some point, if you’re at Ruggles or Nubian Square [stations], there will be a point where somebody’s getting onto a free bus and somebody else is saying, ‘Why do I have to pay?’” Johnson said.
Johnson said the biggest benefit of operating free buses would be to speed up service, since passengers would not need to pay while boarding and could enter through any door.
Ironically, this is also the main argument the MBTA has made for its ongoing plan to replace its fare system with a new, all-electronic version that would allow all-door boarding on vehicles and end cash payments onboard.
That project, called fare transformation, carries a total price tag of nearly $1 billion, has been years in the making, and seems to still have the full support of MBTA management even as it considers a free fare test in Boston.
“Fare transformation is here to stay,” Heffernan said. “We’re not in any way turning away from that.”