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Riding the 23, 28 and 29 buses in Boston will be free for 2 years

Commuters board an MBTA bus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Commuters board an MBTA bus. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Passengers on three busy MBTA bus routes — 23, 28 and 29 — in Boston will not have to pay fares for two years starting March 1.

On Wednesday, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced a start date for the pilot that uses $8 million from the city's federal coronavirus relief allocation. On her first day in office, Wu had announced the plan with the hopes of building on the success of the fare-free pilot program on Route 28 that started in August under former Acting Mayor Kim Janey.

Wu said she wants the program to ease financial burdens for some riders.

“For anyone who has worried about how to afford food or rent or how to make ends meet because transportation is just yet another cost in that family budget,” said Wu, “today we are excited to have plans to show just how much we can make a difference in taking those barriers down.”

Wu, who made free public transportation a central focus of her mayoral campaign, said this pilot program will allow the city to measure the benefits of free MBTA service.

The Route 28 pilot helped ridership soar.

In its first six months of running fare free, the 28 became the most popular bus in the MBTA system, carrying nearly 12,000 riders daily, more than 90% of pre-pandemic levels, said Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge. Hodge also reported that boarding times decreased by 20%.

“The bottom line is this: free fares work,” said Hodge.

Riders will still need to pay for bus transfers to other routes and services.

The Route 28 bus pilot began last August and was set to end on Dec. 31. City officials hoped to start the two-year, expanded version of the pilot in early January with no gaps in free service on the 28. A Federal Transit Agency regulation that requires fare changes that last more than 6 months be considered permanent, which would then require a formal fare change process, slowed those plans down.

The expanded pilot is set to end in 2024.  Over the next two years, city officials plan to seek out funding to continue fare free service when the pilot ends.

“To find that sustainable funding source, we will need partnership, we will need help from other levels of government, as well,” said Wu.

Fare free pilots on the MBTA could also extend beyond Boston.

Officials from 15 communities, including Cambridge, Somerville and Worcester, signed a letter late last month asking Poftak to work with them to create a process to develop free bus pilot programs. Officials from Boston signed on as well.

The local leaders said they’re willing to use their own funds, like Boston, in hopes of boosting transit ridership and service reliability.

Poftak said there are some questions about funding, but “we stand willing to cooperate with municipal partners who want to do this type of work.”

Hodge said a detailed evaluation of the Route 28 pilot will be released in the coming weeks.

With additional material from The Associated Press

This article was originally published on February 09, 2022.

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Darryl C. Murphy Twitter Host
Darryl C. Murphy is the host of WBUR's daily news and culture podcast, "The Common."

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