Wu, Janey and Pressley tout the benefits of Boston’s new free bus service

The City of Boston is reimbursing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for fare revenue using $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on its 23, 28 and 29 bus routes for two years. The city had previously eliminated fares for passengers on the 28 bus starting in August of last year, also using federal funding.

Alberto Castro, a 36-year-old father of two who is studying engineering at Roxbury Community College, had heard that more bus routes might become free, but he was still shocked when he hopped on the 23 earlier this month and didn’t have to cough up a fare.

“It was a nice surprise,” he said. “That translates into more money in my pocket. It’s a little, but it adds up. »

A recent city evaluation of the elimination of fares on the 28 buses found that ridership had increased by 23% compared to other bus routes; eight percent of respondents said they would have walked or cycled if the bus was not free and five percent said they would have used a car.

About a third of cyclists saved money, with about 23% saving $20 or more per month, according to the assessment. Two-thirds of riders didn’t save any money, either because they had already bought a monthly pass or because they were transferred to another bus or metro that charged them a fare.

Eliminating fares on the 28 allowed passengers to board through all doors of the bus, speeding boarding time per person by 20%, the city found. But because many more passengers boarded, service slowed. The average journey time has fallen from 37 minutes to 41 minutes.

Wu said his ride on the 23 bus Tuesday around 11 a.m. was packed, showing there is strong demand for the bus service once the cost barrier is removed. To improve journey times, Mr Wu said more frequent bus service was needed, as well as dedicated bus lanes allowing buses to bypass traffic.

The city chose bus routes 23, 28 and 29 for the pilot because they use the new downtown bus lanes on Columbus Avenue or along Blue Hill Avenue, where the city plans to install bus lanes passing through the center, Wu said.

“We can make pavement changes to expedite service and then continue to discuss with the MBTA the need for increased service on those roads as well,” she said.

Wu wants to see the bus service become free for riders across the city, and to do that she will need help from the state and federal government.

Pressley said she was working to pass a bill she introduced with Sen. Edward Markey that would create a competitive $5 billion grant program to offset transit agency fare revenue in commmon.

At the State House, legislation that would require the MBTA and regional transportation authorities to create free year-round bus pilots, but provide no funding for the pilots, is pending at the transportation committee.

Representative Christine Barber, Democrat of Somerville and a co-author of the bill, said her goal was to study the benefits and costs of free bus service.

“We haven’t looked at the specific funding mechanisms,” she said. “The pilot program is the best way to determine what will work best.”

But the co-chairman of the Legislature’s transportation committee, Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, called free public transit a “potential distraction” from the “substantial financial needs” of the MBTA.

“I’m not sold,” he said. “The focus has to be on how we’re going to have the best operating system.”

Some regional transport authorities go ahead without state support. Worcester RTA, Merrimack Valley RTA and Franklin RTA have already eliminated fares on all of their buses through pilot programs.

Wu said she had not discussed free bus service with Democratic gubernatorial candidates Sonia Chang-Díaz, a cosponsor of Barber’s bill, or Maura Healey, the state’s attorney general.

Other municipalities bordering Boston are considering making MBTA bus lines more free. Brookline is considering a proposal to use $1.2 million of its federal COVID-19 relief funds to reimburse the MBTA for fares paid by people who board the 66 bus at Brookline for two years. The 66 bus crosses Brookline from Harvard Square in Cambridge to Nubian Square in Boston.

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui recently formed a task force to work out the details of a free bus pilot and appointed councilor Burhan Azeem as chair. Azeem expects the task force to have a proposal by early June.

Wu said the more pilot projects there are, the easier it will be to secure long-term funding.

“Being able to change what is possible and then show what it feels like. . . proves the merits of the investment,” she said.

Taylor Dolven can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.

Melvin Z. Madore