The Boston City Council moved one step closer to eliminating fares on the MBTA’s 23, 28, and 29 bus routes for two years.
On Monday, the council’s COVID-19 recovery committee met to discuss a request from Mayor Michelle Wu for $8 million of the city’s federal pandemic relief money to reimburse the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for fare revenue on the three lines starting early next year. The planned two-year pilot program would expand an existing program in which the city has covered fares on the 28 bus route since late August.
The program aims to relieve the financial burden of transportation costs for low-income riders of the three buses that run through Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury, neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For low-income families, transportation costs are a higher percentage of their overall household budget compared to families that are better off,” said Vineet Gupta, director of planning at Boston’s Transportation Department. “We think that in the long run, families who take advantage of free fares on these routes will have more expendable household income for other essential needs.”
The program also aims to improve bus service and make it a more reliable transportation option. Riders on the free buses will be able to board through all doors, not just the front door, and avoid tapping their CharlieCards or using change to pay their fare, cutting down on the time the buses stay at each stop, Gupta said.
The $8 million budget for the pilot program was estimated based on prepandemic ridership levels for the three bus lines. Also included in the budget are funds for getting the word out about the program to residents and evaluating its economic impact, said Gupta. The funds are part of the $558 million Boston received from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden earlier this year — more than $360 million of which has yet to be allocated, according to Sarah Anders, a spokeswoman for Wu’s office.
At Monday’s hearing, several city councilors raised the need for similar fare-free service in their districts and for low-income people citywide.
The city chose the 23, 28, and 29 bus routes because they serve predominantly low-income people of color, said Gupta, and are located in a corridor that is not located near subway lines. All run on or intersect with Blue Hill Avenue, which the city has slated for center-running bus lanes to improve service. Gupta said the Transportation Department will evaluate the impact of the pilot program to see which other corridors would be good fits for fare elimination.
Councilor Frank Baker, who represents most of Dorchester, said he is concerned about how the city will fund the fare-free bus service after the two-year pilot is over.
“Where is the money coming from?” he said. “What pot of money is it going to get cut out of? Is it going to get cut out of the Parks Department? Cut out of the Police Department? Cut out of public works? Cut out of traffic? Where is it going to get cut out of because there’s only so much pie here.”
Casey Brock-Wilson, the city’s director of strategic partnerships who attended Monday’s hearing on behalf of the administration and finance office, said the city will be looking for a long-term sustainable funding source to continue fare-free service based on the results of the pilot program. She said the city is keeping a close eye on the recently passed federal infrastructure law for any funding opportunities.
“It would be part of a budget conversation in two years with a public process around it,” she said.
During the mayoral campaign, Wu released a research paper about fare-free bus service pilot programs in partnership with Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. The paper cited targeting federal and state grant funds and mentioned redirecting the nearly $1 billion set aside for the MBTA’s fare collection system upgrade to fund fare-free service.
Wu’s office said she will work to identify a “sustainable funding source.”
The City Council plans to vote on the pilot program on Dec. 1.