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:
"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.