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Fare-free MBTA bus pilot boosted ridership, but not always savings

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

A pilot program to run the Route 28 bus in Boston free of fares boosted ridership by more than 20%, while only about a third of commuters who participated saved money because of costs they faced elsewhere on the MBTA, officials said Thursday.

Final evaluation of the fare-free test remains underway, but T staff presented an overview Thursday that showed significant effects from allowing riders to get on and off without paying as the agency prepares to launch an expanded two-year pilot program starting next month.

Between the original pilot's August launch and today, fare-free service led to a 22% growth in ridership on the Route 28 bus even when accounting for a system-wide gradual increase in use after a COVID-inflicted dropoff.

About 5% of the boost came from people who would have traveled by car if not for the free bus option, and 2% would not have happened at all without the pilot program, according to MBTA Assistant General Manager of Policy and Transit Planning Lynsey Heffernan.

The Route 28 bus, which runs from Ruggles Station through parts of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, handled the additional demand with few hiccups, Heffernan said, describing a "pretty minimal impact" on travel times and reliability.

In fact, she said, the pilot cut down the amount of time Route 28 buses lingered at each station by 20% compared to similar routes because riders no longer had to queue up and pay fares to board.

Boston spent about $500,000 on the pilot program, Heffernan said.

Only about a third of Route 28 commuters experienced cash savings themselves, according to Heffernan. During the pilot, 21% of riders saved more than $20 per month and another 12% saved $20 or less as a result of not needing to pay for the Route 28 bus.

The remaining 66% of riders spent as much on T passes as they would have without a fare-free option, Heffernan said, attributing the breakdown to "behavior" rather than financial need because costs still existed for any transfers onto other parts of the MBTA network.

"Riders saved based on where they went and if they transferred," she said. "If you owned an MBTA monthly pass because that is what had to get you where you needed to go, or you had to transfer to make your complete trip, you were still paying your fare at the transfer."

The T used automatic passenger counters, which are essentially laser beams that count how many times someone crosses a bus door and can distinguish between boarding and disembarking, to collect ridership data during the pilot.

Results from the Route 28-exclusive pilot could color debate as Boston embarks on a longer, more extensive program eliminating fares on a trio of bus routes.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced plans in November to run the Route 23, Route 28 and Route 29 bus lines free of fares for two years, working to fulfill a campaign promise shortly after she took office. The effort will use $8 million in federal funding Boston received to cover the costs including lost fare revenue and, if necessary, expanded service to meet demand.

Heffernan said that because the fare price will change for a period longer than six months, the T will be required to launch an equity analysis at the program's start and again at its end when ticket costs return to normal.

She cautioned that the second equity analysis will likely demonstrate that reimposing fares on the three bus routes carries a disparate impact or disproportionate burden because of ridership demographics. Heffernan added that the T could argue the use of federal funds for a limited-time decrease provides a "substantial legitimate justification."

Wu has helped usher in a new focus on reducing or eliminating the costs that riders face to travel by public transit, and Heffernan said several other municipalities including Cambridge, Brookline, Watertown and Salem have approached the T expressing interest in launching their own fare-free bus programs. Somerville, meanwhile, has discussed distributing transit passes.

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"We are certainly open to those conversations. We do worry as a staff that if certain municipalities have resources and others don't, what does that look like and what is the MBTA's responsibility in that space?" Heffernan said. "There is a significant amount of staff time to pull these things together, and given some of the data from the evaluation about rider benefits, the staff is curious if this is the best approach here."

Transit advocates have been pressing the MBTA for years to expand its current reduced-fare offerings.

Maria Belen Power, associate executive director of GreenRoots, said the Chelsea and East Boston communities her group serves are two of the most transit-dependent in the region. Most residents in those areas, she said, don't own a car, and a majority were deemed essential workers who had to report to jobs in-person during the pandemic.

"We really are at a critical moment where the MBTA can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with low-income riders across the region and provide long-overdue economic relief," she told the board. "We have seen this before, we've implemented it before, programs like the Youth Pass. All we need is your courage and political will to do so."

In October 2019, the MBTA's Youth Pass — its only means-tested program — had about 4,500 participants, and the agency also offered reduced fares to about 49,000 students, 59,000 seniors, 20,000 Transportation Access Pass recipients and 1,500 blind riders, according to data Heffernan presented Thursday.

Other projections Heffernan outlined estimated that launching a means-tested fare program across the system, with income eligibility set at 200% of the federal poverty level and high uptake assumed, could draw in 49,000 to 89,000 riders on buses and rapid transit and 1,500 to 3,300 riders on commuter rail and ferry.

Such a program would also require the T to offer 230,000 to 415,000 additional paratransit trips on the RIDE, Heffernan said.

If the T kept service at existing levels, Heffernan estimated the program would cost $52 million to $85 million per year. That price tag grew to $72 million to $112 million per year factoring in added service to meet additional demand.

However, those figures were based on pre-pandemic ridership, so it is unclear how the enormous COVID-19 impacts the MBTA has withstood would alter the outlook.

The Fiscal and Management Control Board, which oversaw MBTA operations until it dissolved last summer, in June instructed MBTA staff to create plans for a low-income fare pilot program.

Amid the latest presentation of projected impacts, current board member Travis McCready cautioned against getting caught in "analysis paralysis," even as he acknowledged the enormous complexity involved.

"I wonder aloud to the general manager and my fellow colleagues whether there is at some point a drop-dead date where we have some sort of sense of go, no-go, on something," McCready said during Thursday's meeting, suggesting the T partner with computer scientists to help craft technology that would make navigating a low-income fare system smoother.

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