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THE ARGUMENT

Should all MBTA and regional transit buses be free?

Read two views and vote in our online poll.

YES

Martha Velez

Lawrence Health and Human Services Director

Martha Velez
Martha VelezMartha Cruz

For people who struggle and depend on public transit, the question shouldn’t be “why free fares?” but rather, “why not?”

Here in Lawrence, free fares for bus service are a success.

Transportation choices some take for granted are out of reach for many. AAA estimates that annual car ownership costs $9,561. Many residents cannot afford a vehicle, and have trouble getting to work, school, medical appointments, the supermarket, or other services. For them, public transit is a lifeline, and fares are a barrier.

Under the leadership of former mayor Dan Rivera, we decided to pay for the bus route that originates at the senior center and travels through some of our poorest neighborhoods. The city set aside $225,000 for the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority to make three of our busiest routes fare-free for two years. The City Council recently approved funding for an extension, and with federal support, the program is now funded for four years.

What happened when we removed the fares? Ridership on these routes rose 20,636 riders, or 25.6 percent, in the first six months of the program before the pandemic.

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We then conducted 312 face-to-face rider interviews, in English and Spanish. People were thankful! Most riders made less than $10,000 per year; 90 percent under $20,000.

The discussion of free fares is not abstract. It’s real to people. One woman said, “If I didn’t have this bus, I wouldn’t be able to work.” An 89-year-old man said he wouldn’t be able to get to his medical appointments. Another woman said that money saved from fares paid for groceries.

As a Commonwealth, let’s encourage transit ridership as a pathway to opportunity, to grow our economy, protect the climate, and reduce roadway congestion. We must both eliminate financial barriers and fund transportation capital investments and operations. More state funding is needed to allow both free, or reduced-income fares, and for transit agencies to provide and expand reliable, safe, clean service.

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In Lawrence, we have shown how transit fare policy can succeed when we put people first. Let’s build on that idea by extending free fares to all MBTA and regional transit buses.

NO

Frank Conte

Director of external relations for the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research; Wakefield resident

Frank Conte
Frank ConteCathleen T. Lange

In promoting free bus service for the MBTA and Regional Transit Agencies, well-meaning advocates ignore the direct and indirect costs associated with such a plan. Removing fares eliminates a revenue stream transit agencies need to maintain current levels of service.

Free bus service sounds wonderful — and yes, it may bring some increase in ridership. But getting people to leave their cars behind and jump on the bus will be difficult. Transit agencies may need larger subsidies to absorb lost fares. Then, there is another unintended consequence; Current subway riders may choose the bus instead — diminishing overall revenue further. Clearly, there is no such thing as a free lunch or a free ride.

Equity for low-income riders is a commendable goal. But there are other ways to help those low-income riders, such as offering them reduced fares, something the MBTA already does with seniors and students. Moreover, why should we subsidize high-income riders, and tourists? Certainly, they have the ability to pay for service, so shifting costs away from them makes no sense and is not equitable.

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Advocates argue that with free fares, ridership increases, and does so at a minimal cost since the expense of fare collection goes away. However, one study noted that expanded ridership can result in higher maintenance, vandalism, and potentially operating expenses. In a recent report, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board noted that free bus service would require significant capital investment in new buses, and higher operating costs.

Advocates also ignore the implications for The Ride, the paratransit, on-demand door-to-door service for people with disabilities. According to federal law if bus service was made fare free, The Ride would also have to be free — which translates into a loss for the MBTA.

Money from Washington, D.C., may help bridge the budget shortfall for a couple of years, allowing for some experimentation with free ride services. But once that money is gone the MBTA and RTAs could find themselves mired in deficits, hardly in position to forego fare revenues.

Free bus service, a blunt instrument with questionable goals, would destabilize rather than help our public transit agencies.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.

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