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May 30, 2023

Fare-free MBTA bus pilot sputters out in Senate

Photo | Courtesy of MBTA MBTA buses

A group of senators were unable to convince their colleagues to recommend money for the MBTA to run fare-free bus pilot programs.

The $55.8 billion fiscal 2024 budget that top Senate Democrats crafted would deploy $15 million to fund six months of fare-free service at regional transit authorities, which provide bus and paratransit services in parts of the state not served by the T.

But when Somerville Sen. Patricia Jehlen and a few fellow Democrats proposed adding another $8 million for a similar effort at the MBTA, they could not gain enough traction. Jehlen withdrew her amendment seeking funding for fare-free buses at the T, a sign that the measure likely would have been rejected had it gone to a vote.

"While I don't see that we are going to do this today, I intend to continue working for it, and I hope you will join me as a matter of equity," Jehlen said on the Senate floor as she withdrew her measure. Boston Sen. Lydia Edwards, who co-sponsored the amendment, said the budget that funds fare-free buses at RTAs "may not be the exact vehicle" to fund fare-free buses at the T.

Before she dropped her push, Jehlen argued that the MBTA also deserves state support to test the viability of running buses free of charge to riders, given its status as a linchpin for the greater Boston region.

"That is extraordinarily important. I'm glad to see those [RTA] pilots continued and expanded," Jehlen said. "But the MBTA provides 60,000 bus trips a day, compared to the largest RTA, which provides 6,000."

Several RTAs, including the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, have eliminated all bus and paratransit fares in the wake of the pandemic and seen ridership increase significantly. With funding provided by the city, the MBTA is running a fare-free bus pilot on a handful of routes in Boston.

Like Gov. Maura Healey and the House did, Senate Democrats in their budget also proposed spending $5 million toward implementing a low-income fare program -- which would offer discounts but not free fares to eligible riders -- at the MBTA.

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