On her first official day as Boston’s mayor, Michelle Wu announced last Wednesday that she intends to seek funding to make three of the metropolitan area’s bus lines fare-free for two years. Mayor Wu has been a long-time proponent of fare-free public transit, and this is the first step towards making the entire Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) system fare-free. However, Wu’s plans have opposition from political rivals and the media.
Mayor Michelle Wu is seeking $8 million of the American Rescue Plan Act, the pandemic economic stimulus bill passed last March by Congress. The funds will be used to make the 23, 28, and 29 MBTA bus routes fare-free until the end of 2023. Wu campaigned to “Free The T” as part of her platform. She feels that fare-free public transit across the city would address Boston’s income inequality and climate change. It’s easy to understand her line of thinking that no fares would allow the working class to no longer worry about ever-increasing fare hikes. And understand Wu’s thinking that no fares would lead to increased ridership across the MBTA system, reducing the number of cars on Boston’s streets.
Though, many obstacles lie in Mayor Wu’s path towards her goal. Wu needed the unanimous approval of the Boston City Council to submit her request for federal funding officially on the same day as the announcement. Andrea Campbell, her former opponent in the Democratic mayoral primary, dissented. Campbell stated that there should be a public hearing before the city council likely approves the request, despite her own support of the proposal.
Campbell cited that the 28, one of the routes in question, seemingly had too much funding devoted to its current fare-free trial. The 28 route trial began near the end of August under the prior-acting mayor. The route saw a steep rise in ridership to 92 percent of the pre-pandemic ridership average. The rest of the MBTA bus system is trails far behind at around 66 percent of the pre-pandemic average.
The most that Michelle Wu can do is advocate, lobby and generate concrete data that her proposal is viable as the Mayor of Boston has no direct control over the MBTA. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts via the Massachusetts Department of Transportation controls The MBTA, not Boston. While accepting to participate in externally-funded trials shows that the MBTA is onboard, Mayor Wu will have to prove that it is worth paying for fare-free public transit to the rest of the state. A permanent fare-free program for the MBTA would involve an additional sales or property tax in Boston and surrounding municipalities within the MBTA’s bounds to replace fare revenue.
An opinion column published on WBUR’s website, an NPR member station in Boston, suggested that Mayor Wu rethink her fare-fare public transit goal. The column’s author advocates for the MBTA not to accept funding for fare revenue it would have otherwise. He stated that the system needs to fund improvements, citing the lack of frequency and safety. The MBTA subway has had two derailments over the last year.
I’m leaning to agree with the WBUR column. It will not matter if the MBTA was free for customers if no one in or around Boston wants to use the service. Hopefully, there will be a day when the MBTA is fare-free, but the system isn’t ready yet.