Bus riders awaiting the 23 at the Ashmont MBTA station in Dorchester on Thursday morning were thrilled that the bus will likely soon be free for them, part of an early effort to fulfill a campaign promise by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who was sworn in this week.
“To save a few dollars, it’s a blessing, it’s beautiful,” said Jerry Mitchell, 61, who said he has been taking the 23 for 50 years.
“It’s a huge help, many people can’t afford it,” Mariel Garcia, 58, said in Spanish. She takes the 23 to get to work as an in-home caregiver for elderly people. “That can help me with the rent, electricity, and food.”
“That would be amazing, it would make it a lot easier for people to get places,” said Alex Osori, 18, who takes the 23 to high school in Nubian Square.
Around the corner from the bus stops, Wu, who campaigned on expanding fare-free transit, touted her plan to use $8 million of the city’s federal COVID-19 relief money to eliminate fares on three buses for two years.
The proposal for the 23, 28, and 29 bus lines was temporarily halted Wednesday by Councilor Andrea Campbell, who wanted a hearing on the funds first. The funding request is now under consideration by the city council’s committee on COVID-19 recovery, chaired by Councilor Michael Flaherty, who stood with Wu at the event and said he plans to hold a hearing about the funds on Nov. 29 at 10:00 a.m. and move forward with a vote at the next council meeting on Dec. 1.
“We’ve heard loud and clear across the city that folks are eager for us to move these ARPA funds forward to help close the gaps in this city,” he said, referring to the American Rescue Plan Act, legislation signed by President Biden earlier this year. “These communities were some of the hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic, giving them the opportunity for fare-free public transit is a no brainer.”
Campbell, who fell short in her bid for mayor this year, also stood with Wu Thursday and said she supports the fare-free bus routes, all of which run through her district. On Wednesday, Campbell requested a hearing to determine why the current fare-free program on the 28 bus came in under budget and to hear public comment.
The 28 program, funded using $500,000 of Boston’s federal COVID-19 relief money, was supposed to last for three months starting on Aug. 29, but was extended through Dec. 31 when there were funds left over.
“This will indeed get through the council, there are just some questions I have, but we’ll get it passed [in] the council I’m sure of it because it’s necessary,” Campbell said.
At the event, Wu underscored data that show increased ridership on the 28 line since fares went away.
Weekday ridership reached 92 percent of its prepandemic levels during the week of Oct. 25, according to MBTA data analyzed by TransitMatters, a transportation advocacy group, well above its ridership when it cost money to get on. That number was also markedly higher than the average for the entire MBTA bus and transit system, 53 percent.
“Fare-free bus has already shown this is the best way to attract riders back to transit . . . Bostonians have already voted with their feet to show what works,” said Wu.
Riders of the 23, 28 and 29 buses are majority low-income people of color, according to a 2019 report from the transportation advocacy group LivableStreets. The routes go through Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, using or intersecting with Blue Hill Avenue.
During the mayoral campaign, Wu discussed the route 66 and 116 buses, which run from Roxbury to Cambridge and East Boston to Revere, as candidates for fare elimination. Since those routes run through other communities, Wu said she is going to start talking to Boston’s neighbors about fare-free transit.
“It was quicker to coordinate when a route was entirely within the city of Boston’s boundaries, but that is the next place that we desperately need to have regional coordination and partnership,” she said.
Boston isn’t the only city expanding fare-free bus service.
The Worcester Regional Transit Authority first eliminated fares on all of its bus routes in March 2020. On Thursday, the agency’s board voted to extend fare-free service through the end of 2022.
“I’m very pleased with this,” said Worcester Mayor Joe Petty of another year of free buses in his city and the region. “I think people need to invest in public transportation whether it be the state or the federal government. As you see gas prices rise and the effects of climate change, this is important.”
In 2019, Lawrence eliminated fares on three popular Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus routes for two years.
Wu hopes the two-year fare-free pilot program on Boston’s 23, 28, and 29 buses will begin in early January. Timing depends on when the city can sign an agreement with the MBTA, a spokeswoman said.
Mitchell, the rider who primarily uses the 23 and the 28 buses to go to appointments and visit family, said he spends $30 per month on a bus pass at a discounted rate for people with disabilities. Come January, he hopes to be able to stop purchasing a pass altogether.
“With the pandemic, people are broke, that helps out a lot,” he said. “I think it should be free, you’ve got people who go to school, people who have to go out here.”