By Adam Vaccaro, The wild idea of making MBTA buses free is gaining traction, January 6, 2020, link
It promises to be a big year on the transportation front, as the Legislature prepares to debate new money for the rail and road systems that may prove at odds with funding initiatives already backed by Governor Charlie Baker.
Against this backdrop, a once-radical idea to fight Boston’s horrific traffic has seemingly taken hold: Eliminate transit fares outright, or at least make rides on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority buses free.
The idea has been bandied about in small circles of transportation advocates for years. But it has gained much wider discussion since since last year’s MBTA fare hike. In the face of protests from activists and politicians, T officials elected not to increase bus fares, and one of the most prominent proponents of free fares, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, is widely seen as a potential candidate for mayor.
So far, it’s been easier to put free fares to a real-world test in smaller transit systems. Lawrence has seen a 20 percent bump in ridership since agreeing to pay fares on three routes, while in Kansas City, Mo., officials are about to make all city buses free.
“What if you could just get on a free bus, and then, with less traffic congestion, the air was being cleaned up?” said Pamela Miles of the T Riders Union. “I really believe it would be win-win, and it’s starting to gain traction around the country.”
The proposal has run into resistance from state officials. Pointing to their decision not to raise bus fares, they prefer the MBTA to stagger prices — by, for example, establishing fare discounts for low-income riders.
Skepticism also extends to some pro-transit organizations that question whether larger agencies could handle losing fare revenue while facing budget pressures and demands for better service.
“Are you actually making transportation more affordable if a lot of bus service remains very infrequent and doesn’t reach the places it needs to reach for people to have access?” said Ben Fried, spokesman for the New York-based nonprofit TransitCenter, which organizes transit advocacy nationwide. “The price of the fare matters to riders, but they prioritize frequency of service.”
Nowhere in the world has a transit agency the size of the MBTA ditched fares, Fried said. Even eliminating fares only on T buses would be “incredibly ambitious,” he added. Going fare-free in Kansas City will cost about $8 million — far less than it would cost the T to make buses free.
To some observers, however, eliminating fares seems more equitable than other ideas to address Greater Boston’s traffic crisis and the pollution it entails, like making driving more expensive.
“A lot of the policies on the table, like fees to disincentivize driving, have environmental benefits, but hit low-income and moderate-income people the hardest,” said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst with the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “Free fares advance both equity and the environment.”
The push in Boston took off last year when Wu called for the T to move to free fares systemwide, but starting with select bus routes, ahead of the agency’s rate hike on July 1 — its fourth since 2012. It has gained support as the MBTA prepares to install a new fare-collection system for buses and trains that could cost nearly $1 billion.
Advocates say eliminating bus fares would accomplish one of the primary goals of the new fare system, which promises to speed service by eliminating cash payments onboard and allowing riders to enter through both front and back doors.
“To me, this is not a giveaway,” said Stacy Thompson of the Livable Streets Alliance, which advocates for better transit options. “This is really about how do you make the bus system more efficient and more desirable with the resources we have today.”
Cost, as always, is front and center. The T collects about $700 million in fares a year, funding roughly one-third of its operating budget. While buses account for a fraction of that, fare-free skeptics say the agency cannot afford to forgo money amid several expensive initiatives — from systemwide repairs to modernizing the commuter rail. “The T needs additional operating revenue to maintain its current levels of service,” said Brian Kane, deputy director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns with T service. “Anything that will have to be paid for with additional money is just going to make that more difficult.”
Supporters, however, argue that eliminating fares on local MBTA bus routes could be done on the relative cheap: maybe as little as $36 million a year, according to an estimate by the Livable Streets Alliance. That number, which does not include the Silver Line or long-distance express routes, reflects the fact that a huge portion of MBTA bus riders transfer to the subway, paying $2.40 for a combined trip, or hold a monthly bus-subway pass, and would continue to pay for the train service even with free buses. Making most buses free on the T and every other public bus system in the state could be covered with a 2-cent gas tax increase, according to Livable Streets.
State officials question those numbers, because some subway riders may choose to travel solely by bus, costing the T those fares. And federal rules may also require the T to make its door-to-door service for people with disabilities less expensive, further adding to the deficit, as would costs associated with running more buses to address additional demand.
“It’s a more complicated conversation than people have made it out to be,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. “I’d like to provide a bus service that’s good enough that people are willing to pay for it, rather than concede that service is terrible and we should offer it for free.”
Pollack said the state would listen to offers from outside parties to lower fares, but added that service may suffer if the T covered the costs itself.
Fare-free proponents acknowledge the estimate may be low because of these factors, but said it offers a preliminary cost.
A further complication is a state law that suggests, though does not mandate, that transit agencies over time increase the portion of their budget funded by fares.
The Boston Globe Editorial Board, which recently endorsed fare-free buses, said employers or philanthropists could pay for service on select routes. Another option could be tapping municipalities for funds, as Lawrence is doing.
In Boston, officials are more focused on paying for student passes and working with the T to improve bus service and aren’t likely to underwrite free buses anytime soon, said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets. Supporters and skeptics agree on one thing: fare-free buses would require big service upgrades to address new ridership and potential crowding.
Officials are already preparing to expand bus service, including buying 60 new vehicles, but will have other big costs associated with further expansion like building or expanding garages to house buses. The MBTA also continues to push for more bus-only lanes on local roads.
Wu, the Boston councilor, said there’s a reason her push to eliminate fares has caught hold.
“Commutes are getting longer, traffic is getting worse, the struggle to get to work on time is intensifying, no matter the mode,” she said. “So we’re at the point now where people are ready to talk about bold solutions.”
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Boston, let’s make the bus free
The city of Lawrence launched an experiment as simple as it is inspired: Make the bus free. Boston should follow suit with a pilot — and the private sector should help fund it.
By The Editorial Board Boston Globe,Updated January 1, 2020, 1:05 a.m.80
A few months ago, the city of Lawrence launched an experiment as simple as it is inspired: It made the bus free. Using a small fraction of the city’s reserves — just $225,000 — officials covered the cost of rider fares for three bus routes for two years. RELATED: ‘Just make it free’: Lawrence paid all the fares for three bus routes, and ridership is up Now, anyone who needs to buy groceries at La Fruteria on Manchester Street or get to a job at the Courtyard Marriott in nearby Andover can ride the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus without swiping a pass or digging into their pockets for cash…
Cambridge City Council Considers Pilot Program For Free MBTA Bus Route
CAMBRIDGE (CBS) — Cambridge is considering becoming the next city to offer fare-free bus service, joining Lawrence in an effort to increase ridership. On Monday night, the Cambridge City Council will decide whether to research the details of a pilot program that would make one MBTA bus line free.
But many questions remain. Biggest of all, the costs.
“It’s sort of the green new deal idea at the local level. Right now, traffic is the worst it’s ever been,” said Cambridge City Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler. Since public transportation gets cars off the streets, Cambridge is considering whether to encourage bus ridership by making one of the routes free.
Sobrinho-Wheeler is a sponsor of a policy order. “All that contributes to climate change emissions and at the same time, lower-income people disproportionately depend on public transit and buses to get to work, doctor’s appointments and to live their lives,” he said.
If the Council gives the thumbs up, the city will study how to create and pay for a pilot program. It would focus on one busy bus route, like the #1 that travels from Harvard Square to Dudley Station.
“This is a completely possible idea. We just need the political will for it. So this is a step in that direction,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.
An MBTA bus in Cambridge (WBZ-TV)
Several months ago, Lawrence made three bus routes free. The city is paying a quarter-million dollars for two years of service.
The cost for Cambridge would be part of their research. Yes, city taxpayers would foot the bill. “This is changing the equation. Let’s subsidize things that we know are good for the environment, that are good for equity,” said Sobrinho-Wheeler.
But not everyone likes that.
“I think it’s a bad tradeoff. It would bring more commuters into the city,” one man in Central Square told WBZ-TV.
And more riders could mean the need for more buses, more drivers, more costs.
Another complication, most of the bus routes through Cambridge also go into other communities like Boston. So to pull off the free fares, other cities would have to agree and contribute to the costs.
Cities like Boston and Worcester look to Lawrence in debate over free public transit: Since bus fares were eliminated in Lawrence in September, use of the buses has grown by 24%. But some are skeptical that bigger cities could afford it. By Ellen Barry and Greta Rybus, The New York Times Co., https://www.boston.com/news/commute/2020/01/15/cities-like-boston-and-worcester-look-to-lawrence-in-debate-over-free-public-transit#, January 15, 2020
LAWRENCE, Mass. — Dionisia Ramos gets on the 37 bus twice a day, rooting through her handbag to dig out the fare and drop it into the slot, so it came as shock several months ago when the bus driver reached out his hand to stop her.
- Marty Walsh says he likes the idea of making the MBTA free. But he has one big concern.
- How is Boston working to transform housing and transit in the 2020s? There’s a plan for that.
“You don’t have to pay,” he said. “It’s free for the next two years.”
Ramos had never heard of anything like this: Someone was paying her bus fare? At 55, she lives on a monthly unemployment check for $235. So saving $2.40 a day, for her trip to and from community college, past the hulking mills of Lawrence’s industrial past — that meant something.
Since a pilot program began in September, use of the buses has grown by 24%, and the only criticism Ramos has of the city’s experiment with fare-free transit is that it is not permanent.
“Transportation should be free,” she said. “It’s a basic need. It’s not a luxury.”
That argument is bubbling up in lots of places these days, as city officials cast about for big ideas to combat inequality and reduce carbon emissions. Some among them cast transportation as a pure public good, more like policing and less like toll roads.
The City Council in Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, expressed strong support last week for waiving fares for its buses, a move that would cost between $2 million and $3 million a year in lost fares. And fare-free transit is the splashiest policy recommendation of Michelle Wu, a Boston City Council member who is expected by many to run for mayor in 2021.
Larger experiments are underway in other parts of the country. The cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Olympia, Washington, both declared that their buses would become fare-free this year.
Who will pay?
The argument against fare-free transit is a simple one: Who is going to pay for it?
In communities where ridership has been falling, the cost of waiving fares may be less than expected.
Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, intrigued after hearing his friend Wu speak about fare-free transit, asked his regional transit authority how much was collected on three of the city’s most-used bus lines. The answer was such a small amount — $225,000 — that he could offset it from the city’s surplus cash reserves. “What I like is the doability of this, the simplicity of it,” Rivera said. “We are already subsidizing this mode of transportation, so the final mile is very short. It isn’t a service people need to pay for; it’s a public good.”
Around 100 cities in the world offer free public transit, the vast majority of them in Europe, especially France and Poland.
A handful of experiments in the United States in recent decades, including in the cities of Denver and Austin, were viewed as unsuccessful, because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; new riders tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press.
But in another sense, they were successful: They increased ridership right away, with rises between 20% and 60% in the first few months. That statistic accounts for its revival among a new wave of urban progressives, who see transit as a key factor in social and racial inequality.
“Think about who is using our buses: It’s black people, folks who live in communities where there are deep, deep concentrations of poverty,” said Kim Janey, who was sworn in last week as the president of Boston’s City Council and has proposed waiving fares on a key route through some of the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
“I know what it’s like to stand on the bus, all cramped up, so I won’t be late to work,” she said. “When I say more representation matters, that’s why it matters. We will bring new ideas like free buses.”
The idea also appeals to moderates in places like Worcester, which is struggling to persuade residents to use its buses. Ridership has dropped by 23% since 2016, and the buses run half-empty, according to a report released last May by the Worcester Research Bureau, a nonpartisan policy group.
At a City Council meeting last week, a parade of citizens lined up to express support for a proposal to make Worcester’s buses free for three years, as a pilot program. Revenue from bus fares is so low, and the cost of collecting them so high, that it could be replaced by an infusion of $2 million to $3 million a year.
“When I heard the news I sat bolt upright and said, ‘That’s a good idea!’” said Howard Fain, a public-school teacher, who said he often saw people struggling to dig out coins on the 7 bus. “Even people who can afford to pay for dinner love a free buffet,” he said. “Open up a cash bar and see what happens. We can draw people to public transit because people like free.”
Skeptical in Boston
In Boston, the idea has run into resistance from officials who say the cost would be exorbitant.
“We have to have that conversation,” said Mayor Marty Walsh, who was pressed for his position in an interview on WGBH. “It’s easy to throw ideas out there. But when you put ideas out there, we have to back it up with how do we actually pay for it. And that’s going to be the key point to this.”
Brian Kane, deputy director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which oversees expenditures on Boston’s public transit system, said bus fares in Boston brought in $109 million in 2019 and $117 million in 2018. “There’s no such thing as free,” Kane said. “Someone has to pay. Boston has the highest-paid bus drivers in the country. They’re not going to work for free. The fuelers, the mechanics — they’re not going to work for free.” Advocates of free transit have suggested that the cost could be offset by a gas tax increase; but replacing $109 million would mean raising the gas tax by 3 1/2 cents, Kane said. And all the while, he said, the system is straining to cope with the current demands.
“I hate to be the guy who says, ‘Eat your peas,’” he said. “But that’s where we are.”
Proponents of the idea argue that Kane’s numbers are inflated and that the true replacement cost would be closer to $36 million. That gap, they say, could be covered by a 2-cent rise in the gas tax. “That’s where something controversial or impossible a few years ago now seems possible,” said Stacy Thompson, the executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, a transportation research group.
The Boston Globe editorial board, which endorsed the idea of making Boston’s buses fare-free this month, suggested the cost could be covered by philanthropy.
Scott MacLaughlin, a ticket agent for the Merrimack Valley Transit Authority, which serves Lawrence, is already worrying about what happens when Rivera’s two-year experiment in free transit ends, in 2021. “You’re going to take it away after two years?” he said. “When you give someone something for free and then you take it away, that’s always going to be an issue.”
Marty Walsh says he likes the idea of making the MBTA free. But he has one big concern.
“It’s easy to throw ideas out there.”
By Nik DeCosta-Klipa, Boston.com, January 10, 2020
Boton Mayor Marty Walsh likes the idea of eliminating fares on MBTA — in theory.
But he does have some questions about how it would actually work, specifically, “Who pays?”
“Not that I don’t not support it,” Walsh said Friday during his monthly appearance on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio. “The issue is how do we pay for it.”
The mayor was asked about making at least MBTA buses fare-free, a once-fringe proposal that has picked up momentum since last year’s systemwide fare hikes. Advocates say eliminating fares makes public transit more accessible and reduces both traffic congestion and emissions, assuming that drivers convert to the cost-free option.
Officials in Kansas City, Missouri recently voted to eliminate fares for all of the city’s buses. And closer to home, Lawrence is in the midst of a two-year pilot program, in which the city eliminated fares for three bus routes. Citing the early results of Lawrence’s program, The Boston Globe‘s editorial board wrote last week that Boston should follow suit and at least try making a few local bus routes free.
However, Walsh said that such an effort would be far more expensive than the $225,000 cost of Lawrence’s pilot.
“In Boston, how do you pay for it? Who pays for it? That’s my concern,” he told WGBH. “My concern is if you’re taking the bus system off the line, I’ve heard figures — it’s in the ten of millions of dollars. I’ve heard one figure as high as $100 million a year to run this.”
As the Globe recently reported, the Livable Streets Alliance estimated that making MBTA buses free could cost as little as $36 million a year. The Boston-area transit advocacy group also reportedly estimates that making public buses free across Massachusetts could be covered by a 2-cent increase in the state’s gas tax (Walsh, for his part, supports a 15-cent increase in the tax).
Still, the cost question isn’t just how much, but also who pays, as Walsh repeatedly emphasized. According to the Globe, state officials are wary of devoting resources to lowering fares, as the MBTA focuses on improving and expanding service.
In Lawrence, Mayor Dan Rivera tapped into a $15 million municipal budget reserve to pay for the free bus program. Walsh said Friday that his administration is at least “looking into” what it would cost in Boston.
“We’re going to do that now, because we want to find out,” he said. “But that’s an expense that the T today can’t afford.”
Walsh noted that some European cities — from Dunkirk, France to Talinn, Estonia — had eliminated fares for all public transit. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who some speculate could challenge Walsh in next year’s mayoral race, has called for the MBTA to do the same.
“If we could come up with free public transit, that’s the way to go,” Walsh said Friday, before reiterating his concerns about funding.
“We have to have that conversation,” he said. “It’s easy to throw ideas out there. But when you put ideas out there, we have to back it up with how do we actually pay for it. And that’s going to be the key point to this.”