Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Technicians work on turnstiles at the Central Square T stop on Aug. 30. 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Pressure to make mass transit free or less expensive hasn’t had much impact on the MBTA over the past couple of years, but U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu plan to turn up the heat with a virtual event at 1 p.m. Friday.

Wu used her first day in office Jan. 19 to expand fare-free bus service – seeking $8 million to test making 23, 28, and 29 bus lines free for two years in Boston; the program starts March 1. Markey and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley filed their Freedom to Move Act in March to create a $5 billion competitive grant program that could provide fare-free service nationwide.

Cambridge city councillors asked for a local fare-free bus test Dec. 13, telling City Manager Louis A. DePasquale that with the return of $25 million given to the state to keep the MBTA green line extension on track, funds should be directed right back at improving mass transit, especially where it makes up for state transit failures. One idea was to make bus rides free, with the 68 and 69 routes being identified as the easiest to test because they run entirely within Cambridge. The order was adopted unanimously; the City Manager’s Office has yet to respond.

When DePasquale was asked in April about seeing fares decrease or end, his reply was indirect beyond saying that the city reached out to the MBTA even before the Covid pandemic about fare-free transit, but 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.”

A MassINC poll released last month and reported by the Boston Herald finds that 31 percent of respondents “strongly support” making all public buses free, and another 30 percent “somewhat agree”; for subways and trolleys, 28 percent “strongly support” and 30 percent “somewhat support” free service.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has been persistent in pushing away proposals for lower fares or free transit. Instead, transportation officials are keen on a $1 billion program called Automated Fare Collection 2.0 that would let riders use a credit card, debit card or smartphone to pay for a ride, while preventing “passbacks” in which one rider pays for other people to ride with them. A family of four would need four ways to pay for a ride; new standard, temporary or mobile CharlieCards would each cost $3. (The cards cost $1.50 each to make, according to T officials.)

The new fare collection program was originally described as arriving two years ago and costing $723 million, but now is expected in 2024 for $935 million.

Transit advocates say it goes in the wrong direction.

The new surcharge “places an additional burden on low-income riders, while the corporations behind the new fare collection system will make more than $288 million in profits and overhead costs,” the group Public Transit Public Good said in a Feb. 10 email. “Most low-income riders have no access to discounted fares and would see their transportation costs escalate with a new surcharge. The impact would be especially bad for families.”

Last year saw other attempts at fare reform as well: a test of no-fare bus rides was asked by state Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville, for instance, and a more sweeping “New Deal for Transportation” proposed by state Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop that jumped immediately into free fares on all MBTA and regional buses and income-adjusted fares on subways and other kinds of mass transit. Each have seen reporting dates extended and have yet to see up-or-down votes.

The event “to discuss the need for a sustainable, equitable transportation system, including expanding safe, high-quality and fare-free transit” takes place at at 1 p.m. Friday on Twitter Spaces through the Twitter accounts of Markey or Wu. Participants can RSVP here.