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Doing away with public transit fares is an idea that gained traction in recent years, with the pandemic spurring new interest. But views differ on whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
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Hello and welcome back to Route Fifty's Infrastructure Update, I'm Dan Vock. A few weeks ago, we covered some of the newly elected officials who could shape transportation policy in the years ahead. One of them, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, has taken office and immediately started working on her campaign promise to make transit in the city free. There's a long way to go, but if Wu's plans gain traction, they'd set Boston on a course that several other urban areas have started down.
Free transit is an idea that took hold before the pandemic in places like Kansas City, Missouri; Olympia, Washington; and Missoula, Montana. But when Covid-19 upended transit agency operations, it made conversations about eliminating fares a lot more pressing than they had been even a few years ago.
So, will zero-fare public transit continue to gain popularity?
The transit industry is divided on that question. Many agency heads see benefits to the economy and the environment and also opportunities to start addressing racial inequalities built into the nation's transportation system. Others are more leery, raising concerns about the financial hit agencies could take if they lose fare revenue. Meanwhile, some systems are taking a middle ground, rolling out free or reduced prices for low-income riders, without eliminating fares entirely.
"During the pandemic, a lot of systems went fare free for health and safety reasons. And … social equity issues came to the fore," said Art Guzzetti, vice president for mobility initiatives and public policy at the American Public Transportation Association. "People put those together and said: Isn't it time to at least consider it?"
One thing that APTA members agree on, though, Guzzetti added, is that zero-fare programs should only be launched when agencies have the resources to maintain or expand service, even as fares are phased out.
Free Transit Push in Boston
Wu, on her first full day in office, proposed using $8 million in federal aid to eliminate fares on three bus routes in Boston for two years.
"We will expand access to transit across our neighborhoods, connecting more people to their schools, places of worship, small businesses, and community centers––and easing congestion on our bus riders and drivers alike," she said in a statement.
The new mayor's office said the two-year experiment would help generate data that could then be used to "to build regional and state-level momentum for fare-free public transit, starting with buses."
But Wu's free transit push could lead to a tough fight on Beacon Hill, where Massachusetts state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker have at times struggled just to keep the Boston area's transit system financially viable.
There have been years of debates over the financial condition of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and its core mission. The "T," as it is widely known, is a state agency, not a local one, which adds a layer of complexity to Wu's plans. To carry out her free-fare proposal, Boston would have to pay MBTA to offset lost farebox revenue.
Equity Issues in Play
Mela Bush-Miles, director of the T Riders Union and transit-oriented development director at Alternatives for Community and Environment, which runs the union, said the push for free fares is partially a response to the way the MBTA and state leaders have treated low-income riders in recent years.
The governor, for example, vetoed a line in the state budget that would have created a reduced fare for low-income riders. MBTA officials also pushed for major service cuts to low-income areas while in the throes of the pandemic, before federal rescue money arrived.
And for years, Bush-Miles said, residents have had to pay higher bus fares to use cash when they boarded, even though electronic cards were hard to buy in low-income neighborhoods.
Bush-Miles also noted that MBTA plans to spend $930 million over the next decade to roll out an all-electronic fare collection system – money that she said would be better used to improve service or upgrade MBTA's infrastructure.
Wu's pilot program, Bush-Miles said, would give people a chance to see what the benefits of a zero-fare system would look like. Already, ridership has increased on a bus route that serves low-income neighborhoods that went fare free under Wu's predecessor.
"Poor people have been paying more for the T all along," Bush-Miles said. "Let's give folks some relief from the burden of trying to get where they're going."
A Virginia City Goes Fare Free
Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., introduced fare-free routes for its DASH buses this September.
Josh Baker, CEO and general manager of the Alexandria Transit Company, said the city has been debating whether to eliminate fares for years, but the pandemic convinced the city council to finally do so.
In some ways, the pandemic eased the transition. DASH ran buses for more than a year without collecting fares. Plus, Congress had passed relief measures that shored up transit agencies' finances for the next two years. On top of that, Virginia had set aside money for zero-fare programs and Alexandria was ready to roll out a redesign of its bus network with more frequent service at more times of the day.
"We were talking about the economic conditions: reopening, getting people back into the workplace and getting people back into the economy," Baker said. "There was a real opportunity there from a timing perspective."
Fares generated about $4 million of DASH's $25 million annual budget, he said, so the city had to agree to make up the difference that didn't come from other sources.
The combination of a zero-fare system and newly designed routes boosted ridership by 25% in the first month alone. The biggest increases came in parts of the city that had the highest concentration of low-income riders, Baker said.
Baker said he thinks the overhaul of Alexandria's bus system will help people think of transit in the city differently.
"When you're not charging fares anymore, you're treating transit more as infrastructure than as a business," he said. "Transit was a business up until the 1940s and '50s. They were private and for profit, but that didn't work. We switched the business model but then tried to continue to get people to pay their 'fair share.'"
"If you think of fare free as more like infrastructure – it's like a road, it's already paid for, it's free to use – maybe more people will choose transit," he said.
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