Legislation Would Support Fare-Free Public Transit Systems

An empty MBTA Green Line train en route to Government Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An empty MBTA Green Line train en route to Government Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Legislation intended to boost support for public transportation, including state and local efforts to create fare-free transit systems, has been refiled in Congress by U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey.

The bill would invest “heavily in our public transit systems so that states and localities can offer safe, high-quality, and fare-free rides to all to ensure everyone" can access jobs, food and essential services, Pressley said in a written statement Tuesday.

The bill comes as transit agencies like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority have grappled with ridership levels still well below those of pre-pandemic times.

The agency has faced criticism over some of its service reductions. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak on Monday announced that “we are bringing back service as fast as we possibly can on bus and subway with the goal of getting to 100% of pre-COVID service levels.”

A $5 billion competitive grant program to offset fare revenues for transit agencies to help create fare-free public transportation systems is one proposal included in the bill filed Monday by the two Democrats. The bill would also back efforts to improve the safety and quality of public transit, particularly in historically underserved areas.

The bill would help cover the cost of hiring more personnel and paying for fuel, maintenance and personal protective equipment. It would also help pay for improving bus stops and pedestrian and bike shelters and redesigning bus routes and modernizing infrastructure like painted bus lanes to help ease traffic congestion.

Markey said fare-free public transit will help “provide low-income workers, families, seniors, and individuals with disabilities with improved access to jobs, education, medical care, and other critical services.”

Pressley and Markey originally filed the bill in June, 2020, but it failed to make its way through Congress.

The push by the MBTA to restore bus and subway service to pre-pandemic levels comes after an influx of federal stimulus dollars, according to Poftak.

“When we started the process of planning in the fall we were facing a much different landscape. We had a great deal of uncertainty around federal funding,” he said.

Since then, the agency has received three injections of federal dollars —$827 million at the end of December, $301 million in the second round, and a recent third round of funding of $845 million — for a combined total of more than $1.9 billion.

The agency's budget plan for the new fiscal year will propose full funding for pre-pandemic service levels on bus and subway lines. He said the agency is also considering restoring some bus routes that had been suspended.

Public Transit Public Good, which describes itself as a partnership of transit workers and riders, said it welcomed the announcement of the planned restoration of bus and subway service, but said it is “disappointing that the MBTA has not been able to say with certainty when or whether all nine suspended bus lines will be reinstated."



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