Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is extending the fare-free pilot program on the route 28 bus for another two months.
The 28 bus, which runs from Mattapan Square to Ruggles station, was set to start charging riders again on Jan. 1 after four months of waiving fares. The City of Boston began reimbursing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for fares on the bus route in late August using federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The extension through Feb. 28 comes as Wu’s administration continues to work with the MBTA to make the 28 and two other bus lines, the 23 and the 29, fare-free for two years starting in 2022 using $8 million of the city’s funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to reimburse the MBTA.
Wu envisioned those longer pilots starting as soon as Jan 1, she told the Globe last week, to ensure there would not be a gap for 28 bus riders. But her plan may be delayed by a Federal Transit Administration requirement 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 FTA spokesperson.
The city’s extension of the 28 pilot program gives Wu’s administration two more months to get things sorted out with the FTA without adversely affecting riders.
“Fare-free transit connects our communities, drives ridership, and eases traffic for the entire region,” Wu said in a statement. “I’m thrilled to partner with the MBTA to extend this successful ongoing pilot program and look forward to working with the MBTA to build the public transit system that truly serves Boston residents and our local economy.”
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said city officials plan to meet with the FTA in early January to get more information about the regulatory restrictions and find a path forward. Wu said she raised the issue with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg while visiting the White House last week.
Since the city eliminated fares on the 28 bus in August, ridership has increased. In the last week of February before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the 28 was the third most popular MBTA bus, according to agency data maintained by the state Department of Transportation. In mid-August of this year, it was still the third most popular bus and had recovered just 63 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership. As of the week of Dec. 13, the 28 was the most popular bus and had recovered 93 percent of pre-pandemic ridership.
Weekday MBTA bus ridership remains at around 62 percent of pre-pandemic weekday ridership.
By eliminating fares, the city hopes to boost access to public transportation and increase bus reliability by allowing for all-door boarding, which speeds up service. The MBTA and the city will release an evaluation of the fare-free 28 bus pilot in February, including ridership and service reliability data.