Free T-bus service even ditched cars – but saved little money, MBTA says

The new information came in a presentation on alternative pricing proposals to members of MBTA’s supervisory board on Thursday. The agency’s deputy chief executive for public transport policy and planning said eliminating fares on the 28 bus has cut waiting times at bus stops by around 20% and increased the ridership by about 22% compared to similar lines, including about 5% of trips that would otherwise have been car trips.

Two-thirds of riders who took the free 28 bus ended up paying a fare, however, by buying a monthly T pass or transferring to another transit line that charges a fare, Lynsey Heffernan said. Twenty-one percent of passengers saved more than $20 per month and 12% of passengers saved less than $20 per month.

The City of Boston and the MBTA plan to release a full report of the results of the six-month pilot project by the end of the month. In a statement, Boston Street Leader Jascha Franklin-Hodge said the Toll-Free 28 pilot project, which began in August of last year, has saved residents money, d increase attendance and improve bus service.

“Expanded free transit has the power to be a transformative force in Boston and in cities around the world,” the statement said. “We hope that expanding the pilot project to include lines 23 and 29 will help make using public transport easy and accessible while reducing the city’s carbon footprint.”

Heffernan said the T was cautious about working with other municipalities interested in making bus routes free, including Brookline, Cambridge, Salem and others, because it could create a “patchwork solution.” The board made no decisions on what rate equity strategies the agency should adopt at this month’s meeting.

“We [are] beware as staff if some municipalities have resources and some don’t, what does that look like and what is the MBTA’s responsibility in this space? ” she says. “Given some of the data from the assessment in terms of passenger benefits, staff are curious if this is the best approach here.”

Transit advocates who have long called for more reliable bus service and lower fares for low-income people say the Free 28 pilot is working as intended.

“That’s why we’re advocating for free buses statewide,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group. “The T is going to collect most of that money anyway, but there are so many other benefits we can implement.”

Fares have traditionally accounted for about 31% of MBTA’s operating revenue, totaling about $700 million, Heffernan said. But only a fraction of fare revenue comes from buses, estimated by advocates at around $30 million a year.

Public transit advocates say by eliminating fares on all buses, more people will use the bus, reducing carbon emissions that cause climate change and improving the quality of life for low-income people for whom multiple trips by bus may be out of reach. Nearly half of passengers using MBTA buses are people of color, Heffernan said, and 42% have annual household incomes below $43,500.

Municipalities are trying to move forward with eliminating fares on MBTA buses within their borders because they haven’t seen the T take a system-wide approach, said Thompson.

“The only reason cities are doing this is because of the lack of leadership from the MBTA to do this system-wide, which has always been the goal,” she said. “Cities are testing free fares to demonstrate that it’s not that expensive, it will increase ridership and improve service.”

Proponents have long called for other strategies to increase ridership and make the MBTA more accessible, including offering a lower fare to low-income adults. Currently, the T offers reduced fares for seniors, people with disabilities, some middle and high school students, and low-income people ages 18-25.

Despite a commitment to its former board of supervisors to pilot a low-income tariff as early as this summer, the MBTA has not indicated whether it will continue to move forward with this plan. At Thursday’s board meeting, the board did not push for a similar pledge or comment on the matter.

MBTA Board Chair Betsy Taylor said she hopes the agency will consider many different types of pilots. She suggested that the agency come up with criteria on how it will measure the success of tariff pilots.

“I hope you and your group will consider as many different types of riders as possible, different cities will have different desires and it’s good to experiment,” she says. “It’s important to know what the advantages and disadvantages of a pilot are.”

Taylor Dolven can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.

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