A cushion of money provided to test free bus journeys

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BOSTON (SHNS) – With state coffers inundated with unspent funds and the pandemic reshuffling travel habits, a group of lawmakers and transportation advocates argued on Wednesday that now is the time for Massachusetts to reinvent tariffs for its public transport systems.

The bills before the transport committee would launch a pilot program offering free bus rides on the MBTA and the state’s 15 regional transport authorities, make discounted tickets available to low-income passengers, or consider upgrading completely remove T tariffs.

Any of the options would reduce the fare revenues that transit agencies factor into their budgets, but proponents say the transformation would invigorate ridership, ease the region’s infamous traffic, and reduce gas emissions. greenhouse effect, while helping the systems to better serve the users who depend on them more.

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, told lawmakers that free buses and low-income fare options “support each other and work well in tandem.”

“I don’t see any other source of income in Massachusetts that worsens inequality more for every dollar raised than bus tickets,” Baxandall said. “I don’t know of any other source of income that is more likely to be billed to low-income people who do not receive any discounts and are more overcharged for an activity that the Commonwealth ostensibly seeks to encourage.”

A pair of bills before the committee (H 3403 / S 2340) would launch a one-year pilot program making bus routes free for some MBTA and 15 RTA riders.

The MBTA would be required to include at least 20 bus routes in the schedule, and ATRs would have to make fares free on at least one route with significant ridership in the pandemic era, although agencies may choose to extend the driver to each bus line. .

Two advisory groups, one for T and one for ATR, would oversee the one-year trial and examine its impact on ridership, access to transit, equity, performance, cost savings and other factors.

“Our hope is that by establishing a pilot program, we can test the proof of concept of a tariff-free system,” said Representative Christine Barber of Somerville, one of the sponsors of the bill. “We’ve all heard a lot of questions and criticism about a free system, but it hasn’t been tested and studied closely, so we think this bill is one way to do it.”

A one-way bus ride on the MBTA costs $ 1.70, while a monthly pass for a local bus costs $ 55, and a LinkPass offering unlimited bus and metro rides costs $ 90. Prices vary across different ACRs, with several systems offering one-way fares for around $ 1.25.

The idea of ​​free transportation has gained traction in some American cities and among transportation advocates, but it has yet to be adopted as state policy in Massachusetts. Representative David LeBoeuf, a Democrat from Worcester, said 39 other cities had piloted free bus service and that “each of them actually showed an increase in ridership.”

Some RTAs have made buses free for passengers during the COVID-19 pandemic as a safety measure to prevent close contact between passengers and drivers. LeBoeuf said that after the implementation of this policy by the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, it observed higher ridership than other comparable systems.

In Boston, Mayor Kim Janey, City Councilor Michelle Wu and other elected officials have called for free buses. The city announced a pilot program on Tuesday that will allow all MBTA passengers on the Route 28 bus between Mattapan and Ruggles to travel for free from August 29 to November 29.

MBTA officials estimated in May that offering free buses on the current schedule could cost $ 117 million in the first year and $ 105 million per year in subsequent years, while attracting between 5 and 13 million passengers. additional. If the agency increased its services to meet increased demand, those costs could rise to $ 452 million in the first year and $ 153 million each year thereafter, officials said.

Transit systems across Massachusetts depend on bus fares as part of their annual budgets, but supporters of the free service proposal said the fairness, environmental and access benefits of passengers outweigh any lost income.

The systems also spend a substantial amount of money to maintain the fare system through ticket machines, escapes enforcement, and card fees. Baxandall said that before the pandemic, data from the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority showed the agency was spending 77 cents on fare collection for every dollar it brought in through fares.

Several supporters noted that the state still has around $ 5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding, suggesting that Beacon Hill use this windfall to cover the costs of a pilot project and then determine a funding mechanism. in the coming years, perhaps using the income of a 4%. surtax on household income over $ 1 million, whose fate will be decided by voters in the 2022 poll.

“Now is the right time for tariffless pilots,” said Senator Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, who introduced the bill in the Senate. “Travel habits and work habits are changing, so it may no longer be possible to change those habits. “

A resolution from Somerville Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven (H 3619) would force the MBTA to suspend work on a multi-year effort to revise tariff collection while the state examines the viability of offering all T services for free. She said the free universal service would be “a necessary step towards economic and racial justice in the Commonwealth” while reducing carbon emissions.

Another bill would introduce low-income fare options for transit users (H 3526). The MBTA, which typically relies on system-wide tariffs for about a third of its operating revenue, has explored low-income tariff options but has yet to implement a program.

Lawmakers approved a mandate to launch a low-income option as part of a freight bill bill they passed in the dying moments of the 2019-20 legislative session, but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed this language.

“Further study is needed to understand how transport authorities can implement charging systems that depend on collecting information on user income and to understand what the loss of income would be and how that income would be replaced. Baker wrote at the time. “No means-tested tariff can be applied until the MBTA and RTAs have a financially viable plan in place to replace the lost revenue.”

The House and Senate did not allow themselves enough time to override Baker’s veto, resetting the process. Six months after the start of the current legislative session, legislative leaders have not publicly indicated whether they plan to revive the low-income tariff proposal.

Transport Committee co-chair Representative William Straus hinted that action could be taken, saying Wednesday: “I feel the subject is not one the legislature is going to move away from.”

Expressing support for low-income fares and the trial of the free bus service, Livable Streets Alliance executive director Stacy Thompson urged Beacon Hill to make proposals a priority.

“We need the legislature to act,” said Thompson. “We know the administration vetoed your excellent work in advancing low income tariffs in the last session. We know the administration is not interested in going ahead with these free drivers, and we know they are necessary, reasonable and achievable. We need the Legislative Assembly to join with those who are here today to make progress and move this work forward. “


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