A group of elected officials from 15 Massachusetts municipalities wants to make bus routes free for riders, and they want the MBTA’s help to do it.
Thirty elected representatives from Cambridge, Amesbury, Boston, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Newburyport, Newton, Rowley, Somerville, Wakefield, Watertown, Winchester, and Worcester sent a letter to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Steve Poftak Thursday calling on the agency to make it easier for them to create fare-free bus lines.
“Our communities are willing to fund fare-free buses because of the benefits we know they would bring,” the letter said.
Since late August, the city of Boston has been reimbursing the MBTA for fare revenue on the Route 28 bus as part of a pilot program that is expected to end in February. Ridership has soared on the 28, which is now the MBTA’s most popular bus.
Last year, Mayor Michelle Wu secured federal COVID-19 relief funds from the City Council to reimburse the MBTA for fares on routes 23, 28, and 29 for two years.
The mayor had hoped the two-year pilots on the three lines could start as soon as January. But the plan hit a speed bump when the MBTA said any changes to fares lasting more than six months require a formal equity analysis in accordance with Federal Transit Administration rules. After a meeting with the FTA earlier this month, the mayor’s office estimates that the two-year pilots will start by the spring, a spokesperson said.
“With clarification from the FTA, the MBTA is currently working through several points of process to ensure the rollout happens in accordance with FTA guidelines,” the spokesperson said via e-mail. “Currently, the City team is partnering with the MBTA to work out specifics of the program itself, such as the launch date, financial arrangements, and operational details.”
Boston isn’t the only municipality that has moved forward with fare-free bus service. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority first eliminated fares on its bus routes in March 2020. Last year, the agency’s board voted to extend fare-free service through the end of 2022. Also last year, Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority’s advisory board unanimously approved eliminating fares across its fixed-route bus system for two years starting March 1 using federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The 15 municipalities said they are willing to reimburse the MBTA to eliminate bus fares for riders, but need a streamlined, collaborative process from the MBTA, especially for routes that cross municipal lines.
“We are concerned the MBTA does not have a standardized process for advancing these pilots and measuring their success,” the letter said. “In recent conversations with members of the MBTA team we were disappointed to learn that, despite the overwhelming success of the Route 28 pilot, the MBTA has no immediate plan to expand these pilots on other routes and in other communities.”
Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said the city is putting together a working group to look at which bus routes would be best for eliminating fares with an eye on the 66 and the 1, which both run from Nubian Square to Harvard Square.
When she and other city representatives met with the MBTA in November, she said the agency raised concerns about starting more fare-free pilots until the evaluation of the free 28 pilot is finished and about the equity analysis required by the FTA.
“We want to work with them and think about a strategy around this,” she said. “It’s a fundamental difference in, ‘Should we have free buses or not?’ That’s where philosophically there’s a disconnect.”
Siddiqui said Cambridge could use money that the city committed to the Green Line extension project that the MBTA recently returned to reimburse the T for bus fares.
“There are enough resources to do something, it’s more of the will,” she said.
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the agency has had discussions about fare-free buses with three communities around Boston.
“The MBTA is pleased to work with its municipal partners, where feasible, to pilot different programs,” he said via e-mail.