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Council approves expanded free bus routes

Anna Lamb
Council approves expanded free bus routes
PHOTO: KingTransit MA

Multiple city bus lines will be fare-free next year as part of a pilot program by the City of Boston aimed at increasing ridership post-pandemic and creating economic opportunities for neighborhoods most impacted by the financial downturn of the last year and a half.

Last Wednesday, the Boston City Council voted 12-1 in favor of allocating $8 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to the program, which will make the 23, 28 and 29 bus lines free for two years starting in early 2022. The lines, which run through Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan, serve primarily riders of color.

“The grant will fund urgent COVID-19 reopening and recovery efforts to address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and will provide direct benefits to Boston’s communities hardest hit by the pandemic,” Councilor Michael Flaherty, chair of the body’s COVID-19 recovery committee, said Wednesday. 

The new program is an extension of a previous four-month-long pilot set to end on Dec. 31 that has made fares free on the 28 line, which goes from Mattapan Square up Blue Hill Avenue to Nubian Square and Ruggles. The $500,000 route 28 pilot, implemented by former acting Mayor Kim Janey and funded by previous pandemic relief, has seen great success, with ridership returning to more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to transportation advocacy group TransitMatters.

“We’ve seen the success that we’ve gotten in terms of ridership,” Councilor Riccardo Arroyo said after voting in favor of the new program Wednesday. “We know this is an equity issue, but we also know that it works.”

And while the majority of councilors supported the measure, Frank Baker of Dorchester voiced strong opposition on the price tag alone. He has repeatedly pressed city representatives and his colleagues to provide answers on how the program would, if successful in achieving strategic ridership goals, be continued beyond the two-year pilot. 

“That’s our job, to care about city operations, city finances first,” Baker said.

At a hearing earlier last week, Vineet Gupta, director of planning at Boston Transportation Department, and Casey Brock-Wilson, the city’s director of strategic partnerships, attempted to quell councilors’ concerns, laying out how budgetary decisions were made and reassuring that over the course of the two-year pilot, additional funding sources and community partners would continue to be sought.

In the immediate future for years three and four, according to Brock-Wilson, possible funding could come from the federal government’s recently passed infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better Act or leftover coronavirus aid.

Beyond that, she said, “We will need to look forward to longer-term funding options.”

As for what the money allotted for the first two years will fund, Gupta and Brock-Wilson laid out plans for a marketing campaign in multiple languages to spread the word about the free buses, funding for research and evaluation and, of course, enough fare replacement for the estimated number of riders.

“We had to make some assumptions based on the route 28 pilot and what we’ve seen as costs so far, and how we expect ridership to rebound over the next couple of years,” Brock-Wilson said. “We also wanted to budget for potential ridership growth … We wanted to create some contingency in this appropriation that would allow for potential growth over two years as we see the impact of this program.”

Following concern voiced by several councilors, including Annissa Essaibi George and Andrea Campbell, about what would be done with extra funds if ridership did not meet estimations, Brock-Wilson said they would be used either “to extend this pilot or in support of fare-free transit in general.”

Worry regarding “overpayment” prevented the fare-free pilot from being passed two weeks prior, as councilors cited a statement made by Mayor Wu during her campaign that claimed the city overspent on the 28 pilot.

At a press conference in front of Ashmont Station last month, Wu defended the original pilot’s budget of $500,000 saying, “The 28 bus wasn’t an overestimate, because it ended up that the city got an extra month to make up for that afterwards.”

Having her questions answered during the hearing, Campbell, who did not run for reelection to her council seat in favor of an unsuccessful mayoral bid, took the opportunity to caution her colleagues on future spending measures as the city attempts to bounce back from the pandemic.

“I stand in full support of this initiative and thank councilor Flaherty and the administration for actually having the hearing and allowing folks not only to ask questions, but also for [allowing] the public to participate,” she said. “I will not be here in January, and I think when it comes to COVID dollars in particular, that the public should have an opportunity to weigh in on how those resources will be used … At the end of the day, these are precious dollars, once-in-a-lifetime dollars, that the city of Boston residents will get. This is the people’s money; they should get an opportunity to weigh in.”

She joined her colleagues in their affirmative vote passing the plan last week.

fare-free bus, MBTA