Council holds hearing on $8 million expansion of fare-free bus pilot program on three routes

The City Council Committee on Boston’s COVID-19 Recovery held a hearing on November 29 regarding a “message and order authorizing the City of Boston to accept and expend the amount of Eight Million Dollars ($8,000,000) in the form of a grant, awarded by the United States Department of the treasury, to be administered by the City of Boston’s Chief Financial Officer/Collector Treasurer. The grant will fund the expansion of the fare free transit program.”

Vineet Gupta, Director of Planning for the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), as well as Casey Brock-Wilson, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the City of Boston, were in attendance to provide a brief presentation on the proposed expansion of the fare free bus pilot started by Acting Mayor Kim Janey on the 28 bus, to be expanded to the 23 and 29 routes.

“Essentially, we want to launch a free fares pilot,” Gupta said, on the three routes which serve residents in the Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury neighborhoods. 

The 28 bus runs from Mattapan Square to Ruggles Station via Grove Hall and Nubian Square, the 23 bus runs from Ashmont Station in Dorchester up Washington St. to Ruggles Station, and the 29 bus runs from Mattapan Square to Seaver St. and Columbus Ave. before terminating at Jackson Square. 

The pilot, which was announced last week by Mayor Michelle Wu, would be two years long, and will “give us a time frame to do a very detailed evaluation of the program.”

Gupta said that most riders of these routes are low income, and by offering free bus service, these families will be able to get a better grasp on their budgets and be able to use their money elsewhere while still relying on the bus to get them to places like work, school, and medical appointments.

“These neighborhoods are currently underserved by quality public transportation,” Gupta said, and this pilot will help connect residents to opportunities in other parts of the city.

Additionally, Gupta said that these fare free routes would also allow passengers to board at all doors, reducing the amount of time spent at each bus stop/

“We do want to start a marketing campaign,” Gupta added. “We do want to get the word out in neighborhoods.” The campaign will be multi-lingual, just as the one for the Route 28 pilot was. 

Gupta said that when the Route 28 pilot was first in effect this past August, flyers in multiple languages—Spanish, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Vietnamese. Cape Verdian Creole, and Somali—were distributed throughout the neighborhoods.

“We had ads on those panels you see in the bus over the seats,” Gupta said, as well as a social media campaign, “spread the word to community groups,” and conducted in-person surveys.

Several councilors had questions and comments regarding the proposal, and most seemed to be in favor of it, including Lydia Edwards, who could not make it to the meeting but submitted a letter saying she was in support.

Councilor Michael Flaherty asked when this expanded pilot os expected to be in effect.

Gupta said that the city is working with the MBTA on the expansion and the hope is to have it running in early 2022, but there is no official date yet. He said certain “logistics” need to be worked out, such as letting bus drivers know about the program ahead of time.

Casey Brock-Wilson added that they “wanted to estimate out over two years what we thought the program would cost,” and though there are still a lot of unknowns, there were “assumptions” made “based on the route 28 pilot.”

An estimation was made about ridership over the next two years and how much it would cost, and contingencies were built in in case ridership ends up exceeding pre-pandemic levels. 

She added that they need to “make sure we’re budgeting properly for marketing and evaluation. That’s a really important part of this program.” She said that any unused funds out of the $8 million will be used for a further extension of the program or contributed to general fare-free transit.

Gupta said that the city and the MBTA will examine data from this pilot and look for extension opportunities.

Brock-Wilson said that the money that will fund this pilot from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) are eligible to be spent through December of 2024, per the US  Treasury.

“We look forward to conversations about longer-term funding options, she said.

Councilor Kenzie Bok said she is “excited about this and definitely in favor of passing the appropriation.” She wondered how ridership will be counted if people are not tapping their cards or tickets onboard.

Gupta said that “a majority” of the buses are equipped with technology that counts people as they board the bus, and the estimation of funds needed for this pilot were calculated based on “actual passenger count” from a formula created in conjunction with the MBTA.

Bok said that district councilors “all have routes running through our districts” that constituents rely on daily, and wondered about future expansion of the program.

Gupta said that it is “something we can develop over the coming months,” and it is “not something we’ve looked into great detail system-wide.” He said the focus has been on “neighborhoods not well served by subway service,” especially when it comes to the impact of the pandemic on those who live in these neighborhoods.

“We need to be more mindful about who is going to benefit from this service,” Councilor Julia Mejia said, and referenced third-shift workers who rely on late night MBTA service to get home from their jobs. 

Councilor Matt O’Malley said he is a “full and enthusiastic supporter” of the expansion, and like many district colleagues, I can think of a number of added routes that would be a welcome addition, but we have to start somewhere.” 

Councilor Baker had concerns about funding in the future. He said that “I’m happy for it; I’m glad we’re providing a service,” but “where is the money coming from” once the two year pilot is over, he asked, wondering if it would be cut from something like parks or police. “There’s only so much pie here,” he said.

Brock-Wilson said that discussion of further funding for this program will be “part of the budget process in two years with a public process around it.” 

She also said that a “close eye” is being kept on the federal infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act as “potential sources of funding for this too.”

Councilor Andrea Campbell said that she believes all voices need to be able to weigh in, and was grateful for this hearing so people could do so. She asked about the “overpayment” for the Route 28 pilot that had been brought up recently by Mayor Wu.

“We did have to make some assumptions,” Brock-Wilson said, and data from the 28 pilot was used to create a “rough estimate of weekly costs” that were based on levels from before the pandemic. She said that those ridership numbers were used to help construct the budget while also allowing for some growth as well. 

For the Route 28 pilot, $500,000 was allocated from the Fiscal Year 2022 operating budget for a three month pilot, and there was still money left over at the end of those three moths, so the pilot was extended for another month.

There was further discussion of what the program would look like after the two year pilot and what would happen moving forward and expanding as well. 

At its weekly meeting on December 1, City Council voted to approve the expenditure of the $8 million, with the exception of Councilor Frank Baker, who was in opposition. 

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