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Not all councilors fully aboard the free-bus idea yet; want to know who will pay for it once Covid money runs out

BTD's Vineet Gupta discusses free bus routes

BTD's Vineet Gupta discusses expansion of free bus service in Boston.

Boston city councilors say they support expanding the current free-fare pilot on the 28 bus to the 23 and 29 routes next year but say they also want to know who pays for continuing or even expanding the service once a planned $8-million, two-year pilot runs out.

At a hearing today, City Councilor Frank Baker (Dorchester) grew agitated and gesticulated wildly as he accused the administration of going back to the "kick the can" politics of yore by launching a costly new service without saying how the thing will be paid for once the current funding runs out. He said people who actually pay taxes will get stuck with the bill as the thing becomes part of the permanent city budget.

"This is a bill that's going to chase us forever," he said.

Baker refused to sit still for the proposal:

Agitated Frank Baker

"Anybody else other than me have a problem with this?" Baker asked, wondering whether the new administration would propose cutting police, or parks, or public works to pay for the subsidies. And, he noted, the proposal doesn't even include the Red Line, which runs through his district.

Other councilors also questioned the long-term costs of the proposal, even if more quietly.

Both Councilors Andrea Campbell (Dorchester, Mattapan, Roslindale) and Michael Flaherty (at large) said they are also concerned about funding past the pilot. Flaherty raised the specter of the old Night Owl service, which the city supported and which the T canceled, leaving riders in the lurch. Both Campbell and Flaherty joined with Wu to announce the free-fare expansion at a press conference at Ashmont station earlier this month.

Councilors Ed Flynn (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, Downtown) and Julia Mejia (at large) questioned why the Wu administration decided to try free fares on three particular routes, rather than trying to subsidize the overall fares paid for by low-income residents who live in BHA projects or who depend on the Ride.

Mejia added she is also worried about out-of-towners coming into Boston and hopping on free buses subsidized with city funds. She said people from Milton are already driving into Mattapan to get on the 28.

Vineet Gupta, director of planning for BTD, said the routes were chosen because they serve communities that were particularly hard hit by the pandemic: Low-income, heavily minority areas in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan that are otherwise poorly served by transit currently.

He added that all three lines run entirely within the city of Boston; and that any efforts to create free rides on other routes that serve low-income residents elsewhere in the Boston area, such as the 1 and 66, would require discussion and coordination with officials in the communities those routes also serve.

Gupta continued that he and city budget experts decided to try for a two-year pilot, unlike the initial three-month free-far experiment on the 28 - in part to see if they can build a case to have the state - and in the case of some routes, other communities - join in on the program.

Two years will let the city collect large amounts of data not just on how the program saves low-income riders money they can use for other necessities of life but on how the program affects shopping districts served by the line and even whether the elimination of fares make the lines faster, since drivers will no longer have to wait at stops for passengers to tap cards, scrounge for coins or use just one door to board, Gupta said. He said that seems to have happened along the 28 route, although he added final numbers are not yet in. He said the BPDA will conduct study of the overall economic impact of free fares along the three routes. City officials hope to ultimately convince the state of the benefits of free transit rides.

In response to the questions raised by Flynn and Mejia, Gupta noted the city already subsidizes fares for high-school students, the elderly and the disabled, and that it would make sense to look at expanding those programs separately to aid people who live in BHA developments. Flynn also asked him to look at a similar subsidy for low-income veterans who live downtown and who may have problems getting the fare together for medical and mental-health visits at the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain.

He added that Ride users making trips along the 28 corridor have also gotten free fares.

He added that if the two-year proposal goes through, BTD would work with BPDA on a study of the overall economic impact in the areas served by the routes. Mejia said she hoped such a study would also include looking at whether free bus lines would encourage luxury developers to gentrify neighborhoods along the lines.

Gupta said he is hopeful the expanded free service can start in early 2022. He said the city has yet to begin talking to the MBTA about details, however, because he is waiting for the City Council to approve Wu's proposal for the expanded pilot.

He added, however, that he is hoping the city can negotiate a better per-rider fee with the T than it did on the initial Rte. 28 pilot, that, basically, the city can get a volume discount.

Although riders don't have to tap a card or deposit money to ride, most T buses now have sensors that can provide a fairly accurate count of how many people board a bus. Gupta said that this was how the city was able to extend the initial Rte. 28 pilot an extra month - although ridership on the line went up, it didn't go up as much as the city had budgeted for and so the city still had enough of the initial $500,000 outlay to continue the pilot through the end of December.

Casey Brock-Wilson, director of strategic partnerships for the city, said planners are hoping that with free fares, the three lines could get up to at least their pre-pandemic, 2019 ridership levels: 2.9 million riders on the 28, 2.8 million on the 23 and 500,000 on the 29.

Gupta added that as with the initial 28 pilot, the budget for the new pilot would include the costs of extensive marketing in several languages and the costs of analyzing its impact.

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Comments

Sneaking across the border to get free rides. I find Councilor Mejia statements pretty unbelievable would love to see her proof of these border crossings.

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Voting closed 12

What were these drivers doing previously?

Driving all the way downtown? That's a win.
Driving to take the 28 before? Break even.
Taking the Red Line instead of a free bus? Bullshit.

If Milton residents have now found public transit to be worth more than whatever they used to do, that's a win for the region.

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Voting closed 7

Julia Mejia criticizing Wu's proposal was not on my bingo sheet

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Voting closed 12

She's about as principled as Sinema - just out there to keep her name in the news and grow her brand.

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Voting closed 6

I can't believe Frank Baker won't go along with this.

How dare he ask about how something is going to be paid for! Who does he think he is, a member of the elected body of the City of Boston that deals with budgeting and finances?

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Voting closed 7

Is the COVID money is good enough for two years of the program, wouldn't it make sense to wait ~18 months, review the experiment, and only then decide if or how they plan to pay to make it permanent?

Worse to comes to worse, the city stops paying and the T goes back to charging the normal fares. It's not as if the bus service will change one way or another. This is a low risk, low commitment program.

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Voting closed 8

Is that the $4 million/year might be better used to subsidize late-night/overnight bus service, which would mainly benefit low-paid workers in the service sector.

As it stands today, free fares on the 23/28/29 would only (financially) benefit those who aren't making a transfer to other bus/subway lines. There's no data available, but given the high ridership on the 1, 66, and SL5, as well as the fact that the 23 and 28 generally see a lot of people boarding at Nubian, it might be reasonable to conclude that a majority of 23/28 riders aren't saving money from the free bus pilot.

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Voting closed 8

We actually have some data on this.

In 2019, the T published a report about the fare increase they were proposing (and which ultimately was enacted, with some relatively small changes). If you do some relatively simple calculations, you can find out the population profiles of people who pay bus-only fares (either a single bus fare or a bus-only pass):

Local-bus-only fares: 50% minority, 49% low income.
Express bus: 34%, 20%
Linked trip (bus+subway): 42%, 40%
Rapid transit (includes link passes): 40%, 33%
Commuter Rail: 16%, 7%
Ferry: 3%, 3%

So, basically, people who are only paying a bus fare are more likely to be POC and more likely to be low income than any other fare mechanism. This is systemwide data so take it with a grain of salt, but it is reasonably well-targeted.

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Voting closed 8

Wouldn't it make more sense to set up a mechanism where half of the T bus riders get free (or highly reduced) fares regardless of which bus they take, as their income is limited?

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Voting closed 7

Administering a means-tested fare system is not something you can set up overnight.

Doesn't necessarily make it a bad idea.

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King County Metro in Washington State has just this program (sort of.)

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Voting closed 6

Wouldn't it make more sense to set up a mechanism where half of the T bus riders get free (or highly reduced) fares regardless of which bus they take, as their income is limited?

If you're still collecting fares from half the riders, or a tenth the riders, or whatever.... then you still need the billion dollar fare collection system and the bureaucracy to support it.

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Voting closed 8

Here.

Okay, so everyone is talking about the billion dollars spent on fare collection, but that is over a 10 year period, and for the entire system, meaning buses, subway, commuter rail, and the like. So, let's say that we are talking $100 million a year, which is not chump change, but compared to the $664 million that the T took in in fare in FY19 (the last "normal" year) we are talking about a difference of over $500 million.

Where's that $500 million coming from? And remember, it's the City of Boston that's promising that cool half billion a year, or 1/7 of the entire FY22 City Budget. All so that the likes of me, who can afford my T pass so much that I never cancelled it when I worked from home, can ride for free.

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Voting closed 5

that billion is only the capital costs. There's also the operating cost: all of the costs of the entire organizational structure that operates and maintains the fare collection system and collects fares, that provides offices and training and HR and supervision and benefits to all of those people... That's at least a quarter of the total cost of operating the system, and it creates absolutely no net value, all it does is move money from one pocket (the fare payer) to the other (the taxpayer), two groups with a large overlap, so it scarcely accomplishes anything in the big picture.

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Voting closed 15

Let's say that fare revenue is 40% of total revenue for the T. I mean, in the before time it was slightly more, but it's an even number that is close. And let's say that your 25% figure, which is not back by anything but whatever, is right. Getting rid of fares would lead to a shortfall of 15% of the total MBTA budget. Do you remember how things were before the T melted down in 2015. Everyone, including experts that chimed in years before, noted that it was a lack of revenue that lead to maintenance backlogs that the T is still working on.

That's a gap of $150 million a year. How does one deal with that?

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Voting closed 7

I'm relieved that there is a robust, reality-based discussion happening here. All the councilors raised important points. Interesting that one concern had to do with the free fare working too well to attract riders - that maybe an indication that transit access is desirable to many more people than we realize, suburban commuters who find themselves forced to drive today, but could be attracted by a convenient, frequent bus route.

Count me among them. I lived a block away from the 66 route in Brookline for many years, and used it to commute, do errands, connect to other transit. Very useful, and no wasted idle time behind the wheel. I could read to my heart's content.

I think publicity is an important yield from this experiment. Fare free routes are attracting a lot of eyeballs. If they see a reliable, clean, comfortable experience for bus riders, not just a neglected charity handout, maybe it can change some more minds and garner additional support for bus priority and improved routes.

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Voting closed 8

People in transit advocacy world criticized Andrea Campbell for wanting a hearing on this matter instead of just rubber stamping it at the last Council meeting. Well, I'd say this hearing was useful in identifying that the City has no idea how to fund these fare-free lines once federal ARPA money is gone in two years. All supporters of fare-free buses should be alarmed at that if they want this to be more than a pilot effort. If the money is going to come out of the City budget eventually, the administration should be upfront about that and plan accordingly, instead of sidestepping the issue about needing "partners" to help fund it. Frank Baker is a yahoo but he's not wrong to ask those basic questions. All councilors should be.

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Voting closed 11

Someone ought to ask why Boston is pretty much the only major US city which doesn't tax Downtown parking.

City — — Percent — Annual revenue (millions)
Philly — – 22.5% — $99
Chicago — 31.0% — $200
SF — – – 25.0% — $84
NYC — — 18.4% — $236
LA — – – 10.0% — <??>
Oakland – 18.5% — $22
NOLA – —12.5% — $20
Pittsburgh 31.0% — $59
Seattle –– 12.5% — $33
DC — – – 18.0% — $57
Miami – —15.0% — $50
Boston – – 0.0% — $0

Because the price charged for parking is well above the cost of providing it and there is a producer surplus (I think, not an econ phd here), if a tax were implemented, the actual consumer price would likely remain largely unchanged, but some of the producer surplus (read: developer profit) would instead be redirected towards the City. Based on Boston's parking costs (second-highest in the country) and space supply, this would probably bring in somewhere on the order of $80 to $120 million per year if the tax was set at a rate comparable to peer cities. Cambridge and Somerville (mostly Kendall and Harvard) could probably bring in another $10 to $20 million.

That's enough to make all the buses in the Commonwealth free (including all the RTAs) with money left over. And it could be done on the "backs" of developers getting rich off of suburbanites paying $30 or $40 a day to park their Lexus in a downtown garage.

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Voting closed 8

Top 5 -

All places people are escaping.

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Voting closed 8

You mean "moving too and housing prices go up because there is more demand than supply"?

Then, sure, if that's what "escape" means.

(And if you think that people are leaving places because parking taxes are too high for downtown parking, then, well, sure, believe what you want.)

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Voting closed 11

Good idea. Another way to raise revenue is to end the hand outs to drivers in the form of free residential parking stickers. Charge $200 per sticker(which is still an amazing deal) and the city will be flush with cash and it’ll be easier to find parking spots.

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Voting closed 7

... is right twice per day.

Giving away free parking in a market where a parking space rents for $500 per month is nuts.

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Voting closed 7

The suburbanites are going to ruin this for everyone.

"Mejia added she is also worried about out-of-towners coming into Boston and hopping on free buses subsidized with city funds. She said people from Milton are already driving into Mattapan to get on the 28"

Did she follow them home or is this just BS?

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Voting closed 8

I said this knowing that commuters from Milton, and other areas, have been catching the 28 bus since the 28 has been running.

Does Boston need to put up check points at the border?

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Voting closed 8

Are UHub posters suggesting we “put up checkpoints” / build a wall between Boston and Milton?

I thought we were supposed to support open borders and free transportation for all?

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Voting closed 9

and Milton will pay for it!!!

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Voting closed 8

Mejia is the type of politician who simultaneously wants nothing and everything. For instance, she's been very responsive on Twitter to neighborhood NIMBYs who are gearing up to fight the proposed (and now, fully-funded) Blue Hill Avenue center-running bus lane project. At the same time, she complains about transportation inequities and pollution that disproportionately affect low-income POC areas of Boston, conveniently ignoring the fact that she's ambivalent about -- and is actively slowing down -- a project that would serve as a down payment toward addressing those issues.

If it were not for her incumbency advantage, it's not clear that she would have won in this year's competitive at-large election...

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Voting closed 7

Are there so many Miltonites getting on that the buses are too full for Bostonians? If not, this feels like a "no harm, no foul" issue.

(and if so, it sounds like the answer is, 'run more buses to keep up with the higher demand', not, "cancel the program entirely").

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Voting closed 6

It's because Boston, as a city, is paying for a state program from the city coffers. And now people are realizing that this means our budget is going towards paying fares for non-residents.

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Voting closed 11

I'm not a resident of the City of Boston but I spent 5 days of most weeks in the city, doing my job, sometimes spending some money in the neighborhood I work in. The city budget keeps the city roads and sidewalks I use maintained, yes?

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Voting closed 8

There are also people who live outside the city parking on city streets, walking through the Common, and using the public restrooms at the library. Should we be charging people for all of those activities as well?

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Voting closed 7

I'm not sure what planet she is living on that people are driving their cars to Boston from Milton to ride a free bus that only gets them as far as Ruggles or Nubian but if that is the case, isn't it preferable to them driving all the way into Boston?

And if there are so many people doing this, maybe Milton needs more buses.

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Voting closed 12

From Ruggles there are a bunch of Longwood shuttles. Taking a bus directly to Ruggles, then a shuttle, is far easier and quicker for employees at the LMA hospitals/colleges that live in Milton than almost any other mode of transportation.

And yes, this is preferable to driving.

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Voting closed 9

The less people driving into the city, the better for everyone in the city, regardless of whatever bus they're taking and how they pay for it.

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Voting closed 5

Has 4 Red Line Stops with Mattapan being in a short walking distance of a lot of Miltonians.

East Boston has 4 Blue Line Stops.

Revere has 4 Blue Line Stops.

Quincy has 4 Red Line Stops.

Bet you didn't know Milton had that much transit.

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Voting closed 7

sounds like they probably don't need to drive into Boston to take a free bus in large numbers. So again, is there actually a problem here?

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Voting closed 7

Milton has 4 PCC stops that connect to the Red Line.

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Voting closed 8

I want councilor Baker to figure out how much its costing taxpayers to offer him free parking at city hall (most workers in Boston dont get that perk) and see if it might be cheaper to have him take the MBTA. Until these out of touch "public servants" start relying on the MBTA they will continue act this way. Imagine if the city assessed how much money it loses by offering free metered spots on Sundays?!?

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Voting closed 12

Free Sunday parking is a multi million dollar hand out to drivers. Then there’s holidays too. This should be brought up every time a driver or politician says the T shouldn’t be free.

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Voting closed 6

Cool, does this mean the tax I pay every year literally for my car existing is now cancelled?

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Voting closed 6

does not pay for free Sunday meter parking in Boston. Or maybe yours does. Mine doesn't though, I don't pay my excise tax to Boston. Still get to park for free on Sundays in spaces that have a metered rate the other 6 days of the week. So I guess you need to keep paying your excise tax for my benefit, thanks Will.

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Voting closed 5

You statist simp.

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Voting closed 8

is $25 per thousand. or $500 per year for a car worth $20,000. That's a tiny fraction of what it costs the city for you to keep and use a car here.

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Voting closed 6

it's a tiny fraction of what renting a private parking space would cost*. Which is where the "handout" part of that free parking comes from.

*and if you think private parking is expensive now, just imagine if it didn't have to compete with thousands of free or low-cost spaces being provided by the government...

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Voting closed 7

"What it costs the city to keep a car here?" That's a joke, right?

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Voting closed 6

Honestly I am more concerned about the lack of access for low income people being pushed to areas with less transit options.

I grew up in a tough part of town but we always had buses and subways that could take us anywhere we wanted to go. It allowed me to live a dual life where I popped up out of the ground in a place like Harvard Square or could ride out to Chestnut Hill. I had the chance.

What about these people being pushed to suburbs that overtime will become low income as things shift? How about those all the way out in Brockton and the Western part of the state? I would love to connect these areas with Boston better before we start making transit in Boston free.

I am also wondering how free transit would affect areas without subsidies in rent heavy areas? If I am renting an apartment with my buddies I might be swayed by it being on the free busline. I can get a few friends each paying 800 into it and next thing you know it that apartment is pushing 3,500 a month. Maybe if Boston still wants to do this they should target individual accounts on a discount system for low income residents.

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Voting closed 7

then it sounds like a great investment for the city. Tax these higher-priced properties more, use that money to help subsidize more housing. Win-win-win.

And if you want to talk about means-testing, how much extra is that going to cost just to stop a few people from "abusing" a system that shouldn't need to be profitable to begin with? It's not exactly free to offer a targeted program that has to verify individual circumstances.

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Voting closed 6

"she is also worried about out-of-towners coming into Boston and hopping on free buses subsidized with city funds"

Aside from the perpetual campaign attitude, the appeal to a person's FoMo is a classic move of pointing out the possibility of someone else receiving a free benefit to which you believe yourself to be the exclusive beneficiary. That's some lizard brain psychology right there. And then Mejia doubles down with Milton as the culprit, as if.

Disclaimer: I voted for Mejia but not Flynn because I know about the free shuttle bus to JP VA, the reduced fares for seniors, the disabled, some kids, low income residents and other programs that have absolutely nothing to do with the free-fare pilot program.

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Voting closed 7

Pay for it by cancelling the billion dollars and counting that's being spent on the "new fare collection system" and putting the money towards running buses and trains.

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Voting closed 8

but they also said the project was late and over budget. That'd pay for Boston police overtime for a decade with $200M left over. I know it's a state expenditure but we pay the taxes to fund that operation too. The 2 year pilot for 3 fare-free bus lines is $8M, isn't that right?

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Voting closed 6

Flynn also asked him to look at a similar subsidy for low-income veterans who live downtown and who may have problems getting the fare together for medical and mental-health visits at the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain.

Love when people just throw Veterans in there to make a political argument without actually giving a shit about them.... if Flynn cared so much about Veterans, he'd know that the VA already has a travel reimbursement program. There's also a VA clinic right downtown! Great understanding of that constituency, buddy.

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Voting closed 8

…. how do they even get to the point where they can be reimbursed?
Flynn may have considered that with his proposal.

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Voting closed 6

"Is this sustainable?" and the closely-related "What will happen if we expand it and have to cancel?" are good questions, but no better #3.
...
Two more important questions (which happen to be exactly their responsibility to ask!) are
-
"Should we spend inequitably like this?"
and
"Should we spend city taxpayer money like this - spending on something not strictly our responsibility? If we have this surplus, shouldn't we be giving it back to the people? People who are already paying state taxes to underwrite the other half of it?"

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Voting closed 7

This is going to use a big chunk of our federal windfall to try to generate data that proves the new mayor's ideological belief in free public transit.

If you wanted to use this money to help the most low-income people, you'd spend it very differently.

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Voting closed 6

does anyone have a cost analysis on how much the state would tax residents. would it be fair for those in wellesley to cover a higher percentage than those in mattapan.

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Voting closed 5

I think we need to stop thinking about funding transportation in terms of “should we ask the people in Wellesley to pay for the T?” and start thinking about it in terms of “why isn’t John Hancock, Dunkin, The Orpheum, Mass General Brigham, Harvard, the Boston Red Sox, 500 Boylston paying for their workforce and clients to get to work?”

Businesses and institutions benefit from transportation infrastructure far more than any individual and should be contributing money for it accordingly.

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Voting closed 7

"Why are companies bothering to get their workforce to work when we established last year how unnecessary a lot of that is?"

If I had that kind of job, I'd want to go in twice a week: One 9-5 day for appearances, and one 12-8 day also for appearances, but to stagger my commute time.

We can have that. We just don't want to think around corners and try.

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Voting closed 6

And making corporations, institutions, and commercial property holders subsidize transportation for everyone will incentivize them to rethink how much of the workforce they actually need in the office everyday.

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"Anybody else other than me have a problem with this?" Baker asked, wondering whether the new administration would propose cutting police

Don't threaten me with a good time.

And, he noted, the proposal doesn't even include the Red Line, which runs through his district.

I like it when the government official straight up admits that he's in the business of picking winners. It's like the time I gave money to the beggar whose sign read "Why lie? I need a beer."

Flaherty raised the specter of the old Night Owl service, which the city supported and which the T canceled, leaving riders in the lurch.

Uber, bro. The market proved almost a decade ago that there's a population of bored men who will drive cute young women around late at night for pennies just to be around cute young women.

Julia Mejia (at large) questioned why the Wu administration decided to try free fares on three particular routes, rather than trying to subsidize the overall fares paid for by low-income residents who live in BHA projects or who depend on the Ride.

Aw, come on, lady. I voted for you. Same crap as Baker above. Please stop.

Mejia added she is also worried about out-of-towners coming into Boston and hopping on free buses subsidized with city funds. She said people from Milton are already driving into Mattapan to get on the 28.

Borders are a cancer. The natural world is the only truth.

Casey Brock-Wilson, director of strategic partnerships for the city, said planners are hoping that with free fares, the three lines could get up to at least their pre-pandemic, 2019 ridership levels: 2.9 million riders on the 28, 2.8 million on the 23 and 500,000 on the 29.

Why? What's the point of increasing use of something that's not supposed to be for profit anyway? I mean, COVID lockdowns were only a (expletive) year and a half ago. Did we forget already how pleasant that was?

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Voting closed 7