The MBTA is upgrading its pay-at-the-gate systems, while some suggest the T should be free to ride. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The state has retreated on cutting bus and subway service, but City Manager Louis A. DePasquale signaled Monday to the City Council that residents shouldn’t hope to see fares quickly decrease or be eliminated, as has been urged by advocates who see mass transit as a public good.

The city also isn’t doing much on its own to lower the cost of mass transit, DePasquale suggested in response to a question from councillor Patty Nolan.

His answer avoided Nolan’s direct question about “what has, can and will be done for the future of these goals,” beyond saying that the city reached out to the MBTA before the pandemic about fare-free transit, and that the transit agency deflected by suggesting “that instead of non-fare programs, municipalities are best able to improve public transport by finding and implementing bus priority measures such as bus lanes and signal priority.”

Though improving bus service has little to do with being able to afford commutes by bus or T, DePasquale ran through the “transit priority opportunities” underway in addition to an existing bus lane on Mount Auburn Street: Design and implementation of a priority lane along the Concord Avenue corridor is the priority, he said; a proposed redesign of River Street includes converting a travel lane to a bus lane along most of the corridor; and city staff are working with the MBTA to “study ways to improve and expand the existing bus lanes on the Massachusetts Avenue Corridor between the Charles River and Lafayette Square.”

State-level proposals

There are low- and no-fare MBTA initiatives in the early stages on the state level, DePasquale said.

A test of no-fare bus rides called for by state Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville would start no later than Dec. 31 statewide, last at least a year and report back no later than three months after the test’s end – potentially April 1, 2023.

The more sweeping “New Deal for Transportation” proposed by state Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop jumps immediately into free fares on all MBTA and regional buses and income-adjusted fares on subways and other kinds of mass transit. Boncore, the Senate transportation chair, thinks the changes could cost the state between $30 million and $60 million and be covered by a gas tax hike and other revenue earners; Steve Poftak, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, says the cost is more like $100 million, and CommonWealth magazine cited Boncore’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, state Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, putting the price tag at $1 billion.

Boncore also hopes to see the T test late-night service again, with trains and buses running until 2 a.m. weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

Both Senate initiatives were introduced in February.

Boston experiment

But Nolan said her question was inspired by Monday’s announcement of an experiment by acting Boston mayor Kim Janey to give free transit and bike rental passes to 1,000 people, since Cambridge’s council and School Committee have urged similar solutions.

“I was disappointed that we haven’t moved faster to explore pilots,” Nolan said late Monday, after DePasquale’s response. “Our city should be taking the same kind of bold actions mayor Janey just announced in Boston.”

In terms of low- or no-fare initiatives, the city’s transit pages point only to a discounted MBTA Youth Pass Program, which cuts ridership costs in half for low-income residents ages of 19 to 25.

The MBTA has a number of concerns about eliminating fares, DePasquale said, including the “unstudied costs” and effects of revenue loss on related programs such as The Ride, which is used by seniors and people with disabilities; and “excessive overcrowding” resulting from new demand if people were allowed to ride the T and buses for free.

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