Recently, some friends from my hometown visited me here in Boston. They were excited to see what Boston had to offer, including the public transit I had talked their ears off about. We came from Cincinnati, Ohio, by no means a small city but one with a non-existent public transportation system. As a result, we only used our cars to get around (as is the case with most cities in America). Boston is unique in that it is one of the few cities to have a competent public transportation system. It may not be glamorous with the green line train screeching along turns in the darkly lit tunnels, but it is a viable option for getting from one place to another, especially for students.
Not only does the MBTA’s services offer an alternate transportation option to students, their services negate the need for low-income and working class Bostonians to even own or rent a car, lifting a heavy burden in the process. However, fares and adding costs for public transit still limit the potential of these services, leading many to push for the MBTA to go fare-free. The "Free the T" initiative is the newest focus of this movement and was a sticking point of Mayor Michelle Wu’s mayoral campaign last year. The program is a critical component of her commitment to sustainability and affordability as the MBTA as fare-free services would aim to decrease traffic congestion, combat climate change, and address inequality.
The most recent development in this effort by Mayor Wu is using $8 million in federal funds to make bus lines 23, 28, and 29 fare-free for two years. These lines service towns south of Boston including Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Making these lines fare-free follows a program headed by previous Mayor Janey which made Bus Line 28 fare-free for 4 months. Bus line 28 has seen a recent surge in ridership, jumping to 92% of pre-pandemic levels while 23 and 29 serve a wide variety of Bostonians and has been identified as an area to be prioritized for improvement by the Livable Streets Alliance. Mayor Wu aims to highlight these bus routes as an example of what benefits going fare-free can bring.
Mayor Wu wants to provide “safe, reliable, affordable, and sustainable transportation” for all Boston residents and the expansion of the fare-free bus lines seems to be her way of acting on these goals. However, the move relies on federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill meaning it isn’t sustainable, lasting only 2 years.
Another city that recently experimented with going fare-free was Worcester, when the Worcester Regional Transit Authority made the decision back in 2020 to spare drivers having to interact with commuters due to COVID-19. Whereas many systems saw sudden dips in ridership during the pandemic, WRTA stayed steady and actually saw growth compared to pre-pandemic levels. However the program was propped up by federal relief funds and as of now WRTA is having a hard time finding other sources of funding.
This is the reality for many cities such as Worcester and even Los Angeles that experimented with going fare-free without having a plan for making up the lost revenue from the fares. Now they are having to scale back, causing more harm to those who have grown dependent on not having to pay fares. The situation for Boston is similar to these cities, as Mayor Wu can’t make her plans for the MBTA a reality without a sustainable way of implementing these reforms.
During her campaign, Wu didn’t receive much scrutiny about how the city would afford to make public transit free because many of the other candidates ran on a similar platform. Currently the city rakes in around $700 million from fares, contributing significantly to the MBTA’s $2 billion budget. If Wu were to successfully make all of the MBTA’s services fare-free then she would need new sources of income for the city to support the MBTA’s budget.
To answer this question of funding, Wu should turn to cars as the solution. No, don't put more people in cars, tax them. No one likes to be taxed but considering cars contribute significantly to many of the problems Wu is trying to solve with the Free the T initiative, it would make sense. Introducing a carbon tax on the purchase of cars and other expenses associated with owning a car would encourage people to use other means of transportation and provide funding to the MBTA.
However, shifting to affordable, quality public transportation in Boston and in cities throughout America might be harder than implementing carbon taxes. If Mayor Wu has to choose between expanding coverage of the MBTA through expansions like the most recent green line extension and making the MBTA’s services fare-free, I’d prefer for her to go with the former. Expanding service will do more to increase ridership, reduce traffic, and combat climate change than fare-free service ever could. I still believe in fare-free transportation for all Boston residents but until Wu and the city can come up with a way to make up the funding, freeing the T may have to wait.