Acting Mayor Kim Janey Monday announced a three-month trial of free fares beginning next month on the MBTA’s Route 28 bus, which carries thousands daily along a nearly six-mile stretch between Mattapan Square and Ruggles Station.
Janey, who famously does not own a car, said the program, which will be financed with $500,000 in city funds, “means a lot to me.” She hoped that officials would learn about bus reliability and ridership as well as how the free fares will financially benefit riders.
“I would love to see free buses throughout the city of Boston,” she said during a Monday morning news conference in Mattapan Square, which she commuted to via bus.
The 28 route serves as a “vital connection” for Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester residents to key bus, subway, and commuter rail lines, Janey’s office said. The route, said Janey, is a major economic corridor and has the highest ridership of any bus route contained within the city’s limits.
The pilot program, which will run from Aug. 29 to Nov. 29, was aimed at aiding Boston communities hardest hit by COVID-19. It could also politically benefit Janey in a tight mayor’s race. Though transportation hasn’t registered as a top issue, it could help her solidify support among the largely Black and Latino communities served by the Route 28 bus, and where Janey, the first Black mayor and the first female mayor, is already running strong.
Because it’s “such an out of the box move,” the pilot could prove to be a campaign boon for Janey, said Lou DiNatale, a longtime political analyst and veteran Massachusetts pollster.
“This could be a very good move for her at a very critical time,” said DiNatale.
Almost all of Janey’s rivals voiced support for free bus fare, or for at least exploring the idea, but this is another case where Janey can wield a key advantage of incumbency: being able to put a plan into action and position herself as the face of that plan.
The MBTA is overseen by a state board, meaning a Boston mayor can recommend and cajole, but not directly order changes at the transit agency. A permanent re-structuring of T fares would take an act of the Legislature or a decision from the MBTA’s governing board.
While the funding for the pilot measure was part of the city’s annual operating budget, the initiative was framed on Monday as a partnership between city and MBTA authorities.
Steve Poftak, general manager of the MBTA, lauded the pilot program in a statement from Janey’s office, saying the T looked forward to studying its effects on ridership and the larger transit network.
The city and the T have a symbiotic relationship, said Greg Sullivan, research director of the Pioneer Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.
“The mayor does not have direct control over the T, but I’d bet she’d want more control because it’s so critical to the city,” he said.
Coming out the pandemic, he said, the No. 1 goal for the city has to be helping people get back to work.
“I don’t think they could pick a better place for this pilot,” he said. “It is really underserved for rapid transit, and it shouldn’t be.”
The Route 28 bus, Janey’s office said in a statement, carried an estimated 12,880 riders every weekday prior to the health crisis. Ridership, it said is generally steady throughout the day, unlike other routes that see low off-peak usage.
More than two-thirds of riders on Route 28 are classified as low-income, according to the MBTA’s most recent systemwide survey.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is also running for mayor, said in a statement released by her campaign that Monday’s announcement shows “free bus service is possible in Boston when we organize to make it happen, but we don’t just need one free route through Election Day—we need a system that reaches across our city.”
Wu, who for years has called for a fare-free transit system to be funded for universal access like public education or libraries, attended the Mattapan news conference, but Janey was the only politician to speak from the podium.
Wu’s campaign also released an analysis of how a fare-free pilot could benefit riders on a trio of bus routes: 28, 66, and 116. The analysis found that passenger savings would be about $1 million, and would make the bus service more efficient, and eliminate about 2,800 daily car rides.
Wu’s fellow councilor and mayoral rival, Andrea Campbell, also supports eliminating bus fares, and says it’s an achievable goal: Less than $40 million in revenue comes from local bus-only trips, meaning riders who do not connect to a commuter rail line or one of the T’s trolley lines. (That figure excludes the Silver Line.)
Making buses fare-free, Campbell said on Monday, could “make our public transit not just more affordable for riders but also more efficient and significantly reduce our carbon footprint, as more commuters switch from driving to taking the bus.”
Another councilor and mayoral candidate, Annissa Essaibi George, said in a statement she supported exploring free bus fares, and emphasized that public transit must be made “better, safer, and more accessible to all.”
John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief and another mayoral candidate, has called for system-wide fares that are free or reduced for lower income riders, but has also advocated for continuing to collect fares from riders who can afford to pay.
Such a set-up, he said in a statement, “is essential to improving transit equity across our neighborhoods and achieving our climate goals.”
Multiple bills are currently being considered on Beacon Hill that would establish fare-free buses, both in the MBTA system and statewide. A joint committee hearing on several of the proposals is scheduled for Wednesday. Fare-free bus initiatives exist in some form elsewhere in Massachusetts, including Worcester County, Cape Cod, Brockton, Western Massachusetts, and Lawrence.
Travis Andersen of Globe staff contributed to this report.
Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.