Six months after Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed a low-income fare program in a transportation bond bill, lawmakers and transportation advocates came out in full force to support the initiative again during a Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday.
“It’s clear that without a legislative mandate, Gov. Baker and the MBTA under his direction will delay and block these essential programs,” said Collique Williams, an organizer with Community Labor United, which represents Boston’s working class families. “The people struggling and suffering now are still clamoring for relief. They need a more affordable and equitable T.”
After a string of testimony that took aim at Baker, Committee Chair state Sen. Joseph Boncore, D-Winthrop, reminded viewers that “Chairman (state Rep. William Straus) and I thought low-income fares were a wonderful idea, and included them in the transportation bond bill. Unfortunately, His Excellency, the governor, thought otherwise,” he said.
State Rep. Adrian Madaro, D-Boston, filed the low-income fare program bill, which would apply to both the MBTA and regional transit authorities.
Several people also testified on a pair of bills that would order free bussing pilot programs at both the MBTA and regional transit authorities. Just this week, Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey launched a three-month pilot program for fare free rides on the 28 bus route, which runs between Roxbury and Mattapan. More than two-thirds of riders on the route qualify as low-income.
Worcester eliminated fares on its WRTA buses during the pandemic to reduce contact between drivers and passengers through the end of 2021, which Worcester state Rep. David LeBoeuf said kept ridership up higher than other comparable transit systems.
Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, noted that fare collection itself eats up a significant chunk of revenue. In the case of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, 77 cents of every dollar earned in fares pre-pandemic went back into fare collection efforts. He suggested that some of the $5 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds be used to make up the difference.
“I can think of no other revenue source in Massachusetts that worsens inequality more for each dollar collected than bus fares,” Baxandall said.