Boston has perhaps never had a bigger champion of public transportation in the mayor’s office than it does right now with Michelle Wu, and that endorsement starts when she boards the Orange Line at the Forest Hills MBTA stop most mornings.
The commute to City Hall could be seen as ceremonial (a city sport-utility vehicle drops her at the station and continues on to her destination, she said), but it’s a powerful symbol for fellow commuters who are surprised to be sharing a subway car with the city’s most powerful elected official.
“I was really excited to be getting a new Orange Line train, never mind getting to ride with you,” said Colleen Flanagan, who sat across from Wu on a recent commute.
“Congratulations!” another person shouted above the rumbling sound of the train. “I voted for you!” said another.
Getting more Bostonians to ride the T is central to Wu’s success as mayor, she said. At the end of 2022, she’ll know she’s succeeded if there are “more options for our families and commuters, more people riding the T, cycling, and walking, and safe streets throughout our city in every neighborhood,” she said.
She’s already made several moves to kick-start her agenda: Earlier this month, she appointed Jascha Franklin-Hodge as the city’s chief of streets, a position that had been vacant for more than eight months. When he starts in January, Franklin-Hodge will be in charge of implementing Wu’s transportation agenda, including creating more protected bike lanes and bus lanes and pursuing more fare-free bus routes in partnership with nearby municipalities.
Wu has secured $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to cover the cost of bus fares on three MBTA routes for two years starting next year: the 23, 28, and 29. The route 28 bus has been fare-free since late August in a separate pilot program and has seen ridership soar.
However, the plan has hit a speed bump — a requirement by the Federal Transit Administration that fare pilot programs lasting more than six months undergo a formal equity analysis “to determine if there is a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, or national origin,” according to an agency spokesperson.
The two-year pilot programs Wu wants to implement as early as January 1 are meant to increase access to buses and speed up service by allowing people to board through all doors without waiting in line to pay. Riders of the 23, 28, and 29 buses that run through Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury are primarily people of color who have low incomes, according to a 2019 report from LivableStreets, a public transportation advocacy group.
When Wu visited the White House this past week with a group of newly-elected mayors, she raised the issue with US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Wu said the FTA’s six-month rule has been waived before.
“We’ll work through it,” she said. “We need to find a way to make this work for our climate future, for our economic recovery, and deliver the equity that we know is possible.”
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said, “The MBTA continues to discuss the city of Boston’s proposals for fare free bus trips with the city, including FTA guidelines regarding funding for these projects.”
If the issues can’t be ironed out by January 1, the MBTA will start charging riders on the 28 bus again after the current fare-free pilot ends.
“The intention all along was that this would be a seamless transition, we would get it done by January,” said Wu. “We’re still working on it.”
While at the White House, Wu also touted three Boston-based projects she wants considered for newly available federal infrastructure funds: the Interstate 90 interchange remake in Allston, including the long-awaited West Station transit stop and pedestrian bridges to connect the neighborhood; the MBTA Red-Blue connector, which she said would shave a half-hour off one-way daily commutes for many residents; and the electrification of the Fairmount Commuter Rail line, which she said will provide better service and cleaner air.
Soon Wu will begin to focus on her first budget as mayor, which could reshape how the city approaches transportation. She hopes to beef up city departments to be able to do design, engineering, construction, and community engagement in-house, instead of relying on outside consultants and companies.
In-house data analysis of new bus and bike lanes, for example, would be helpful when having discussions with business owners who are concerned about losing parking spots. Wu said she looks forward to building center-running bus lanes on Blue Hill Avenue, which will likely require those discussions. The newly-constructed center-running bus lanes on Columbus Avenue — the first of their kind in New England — decreased the number of parking spots on the street by about 30 percent, worrying some business owners and residents.
“Every resident and business owner should be heard as part of the process,” she said. “What do the numbers actually tell us the real issue is? How would it look differently with solutions that we’re presenting? Making it really concrete that way changes the conversation.”
By bringing bold transportation changes to Boston, Wu hopes the city can influence transportation policy in other cities and at the state and federal level.
“Cities across the country are the place where we can innovate and move quickly, and prove the benefits,” she said. “We’re talking about small steps that quickly add up to better quality of life, better health, better opportunities.”
This story has been updated to reflect the role that the city’s SUV plays in Mayor Michelle Wu’s commute.