Two weeks of free rides coming to Fairmount Line in May

Fairmount/Indigo Transit Coalition members stood outside the Newmarket station Thursday. Jennifer Smith photo

Rep. Capuano to underwrite the effort with campaign funds

In an unusual approach to boost transit ridership, US Congressman Michael Capuano will put over $50,000 of his own campaign funds toward a two-week period of free rides along the Fairmount Line in May.

The promotion — which will run from Monday, May 8 through Friday, May 21 — will eliminate fares for the station stops from Readville and South Station. Riders can hop onto the 9.2-mile line at any point and ride it to their destination free of charge.

Transit activists along the Fairmount Corridor say this is a first step toward getting a better sense of the line’s potential. It is the only commuter rail line to operate entirely within Boston, connecting downtown with Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park but nonetheless carrying consistently fewer riders in comparison with the other commuter lines.

Among the barriers to ridership are concerns of reliability, efficiency, and affordability, advocates say. Community members and elected officials have called for better service on the line, which currently leaves commuters waiting 45 to 60 minutes between trains.

“We call it the Indigo Line because it’s our transit line, and we’re looking for this rapid transit service to [start] happening,” said Mela Bush-Miles with the Fairmount/Indigo Transit Coalition. “So we want to promote this line and get more people to ride it, and enjoy a free ride, just to experience it and to boost all of the things that are happening along this line and to also boost ridership and to get more folks to get out and utilize this lifeline to our community.”

This two-week period would effectively act as a mock-up of the Fairmount Line being eligible for the normal fare transfers that apply to MBTA subways, light rail, and buses.

Capuano said this could be enough to shake up the routines of potential Fairmount riders.

“The line has never really received advertisement in general for people who don’t ride it every day,” Capuano told the Reporter on Thursday. “And people have transportation habits. You might take the same route to route everyday, I know I do. In order to break that routine, people have to see a viable alternative to use.”

As to measuring the effectiveness of the free rides, members of the Fairmount/Indigo Transit Coalition will conduct independent headcounts at the eight commuter rail stations over the course of the promotion. The MBTA will also monitor the ridership.

The Boston Foundation, which will be partnering with the transit coalition to promote the free ridership program, released a report Thursday finding that ridership has tripled on the route since 2012.

During that time, three new Fairmount Line stations at Newmarket, Four Corners, and Talbot Avenue were constructed as part of a Big Dig-related lawsuit. A promised final station at Blue Hill Avenue by Cummins Highway is budgeted for $26 million in MassDOT’s 2017 capital plan.

About 790 people boarded the line on an average weekday in 2012, according the Foundation study, while June 2016 showed about 2,260 on average. These numbers are probably low, advocates say, noting that MBTA headcounts can disregard students and children under a certain age.

Of the new boardings, the study found approximately 30 percent occurred at the three new stations, compared to 40 percent at the legacy neighborhood stations and 30 percent at South Station alone.

But the area remains extremely underserved, advocates say.

“It serves the most transit-dependent riders within the MBTA system,” Bush-Miles said. “People of color and lower-income people who are locally transit-dependent, who have the lowest number of automobile ownership along this line… and most people utilize this line to ride within the line, not just to go to South Station.”

Sue Sullivan, the executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, says about 28,000 jobs are spread through the Fairmount Corridor, discounting those near South Station. Employers that she represent are trying desperately to fill job postings, and with 55 percent of employees along the line reliant upon public transit, the reliability of a train system can support or undermine their goals.

Capuano said he was disturbed by reports of frequent cancellations on the Fairmount Line, significantly above any other line between 2014 and 2016. Keolis Commuter Services, which operated the commuter rail, had rerouted Fairmount trains to suburban lines with heavier traffic, a matter of transit equity into which Capuano called for a federal inquiry.

The irregular service was a breach of riders’ trust, Capuano said, but beyond that, “inconsistent service is the worst thing you can do to a transit system.”

As Keolis has rectified the transit schedule, now regularly operating at 94 to 97 percent on-time service, this is an opportune time to introduce new riders to the line, the congressman said.

“If we build up ridership, it strengthens arguments in the future when it comes to improve the line further,” Capuano said.

Having floated the idea of such a promotion in March, Capuano said he would cover the free ridership period out of his campaign account, based on the T ridership numbers for an average two weeks. The MBTA said it would cost about $53,000. “It’s more than I expected, but I put my money where my mouth is,” he said.

Private sponsorship is among the recommendations put forth in The Boston Foundation’s study for improving the line.

Additional suggestions focused on improving connectivity with other transit options. Bike infrastructure, including bike lanes and bike-share stations, would work alongside Fairmount Line stations. Though neighborhoods within the Fairmount corridor “are served by a robust and well utilized local bus network,” the bus routes “do not provide direct service and are unreliable.”

Most corridor bus services run on schedule less than 75 percent of the time, the study found, sometimes dipping below 60. “Unreliable service, coupled with multiple transfers per trip, result in Fairmount Corridor residents having among the longest commutes in the Greater Boston region,” the study authors wrote. Improving connections to local bus stops, which mostly terminate near the Red, Orange, or Green Lines, could encourage greater use of the Fairmount Line.

The Fairmount Line is fundamentally designed “more like a low frequency bus route than a commuter rail line,” the study notes. Short-term improvements like highlighting the time-saving potential of the line, allowing the use of Charlie Cards on the line to connect it with existing in-city rail, making the $6.75 Readville station consistent fare-wise with the $2.25 fare of all other Fairmount stations, and slightly increasing off-peak availability could all significantly boost ridership, the study found.

Many of these fixes have been highlighted by area officials. State Rep. Evandro Carvalho has filed legislation calling for a two-year pilot evaluation of the Fairmount/Indigo line as a rapid transit line. Long-term improvements are also laid out in the Go Boston 2030 report, recommending investment in the Fairmount Corridor over the next 10 to 15 years.

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@dotnews.com or @JennDotSmith on Twitter.

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