Fare-free Route 28 bus pilot is extended to end of year

The MBTA’s Route 28 bus, which runs between Roxbury and Mattapan, is fare-free for another month.

The pilot program, which started in August, was originally slated to end Nov. 29, but city officials say the program has cost less than the $500,000 budgeted for the route, enabling them to extend it through the end of the year.

The pilot has led to weekly rides rising to 70,000, up from a previous count of 47,000, making the 28 the route with the highest ridership within the MBTA bus system. Two-thirds of Route 28 riders are considered low-income, according to a MBTA survey.

“The success of this pilot program shows just how crucial the Route 28 bus is as an economic engine, connecting residents of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan with jobs, schools, and other important destinations,” Acting Mayor Kim Janey said in a statement.

Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, said the extra month will help transit officials understand the impact of the pilot. “Extending the pilot through the end of the calendar year allows us to gather even more data so we can perform a thoughtful and comprehensive evaluation of the pilot’s effects on ridership and the transit network,” he said.

The evaluation will include the effect on travel time, reliability, rider experience and numbers, and the economic impact of the pilot, which started as the race for mayor was underway. Janey was among the candidates and she frequently touted the pilot as one of her administration’s accomplishments. She and Michelle Wu, the city councillor at-large who on Nov. 2 became mayor-elect, have both long supported such a proposal. Janey endorsed Wu over City Councillor At-Large Annissa Essaibi George after the acting mayor fell short in the September preliminary.

A fare-free MBTA system is a key plank in Wu’s mayoral platform. But the proposal has received a lukewarm reception at the State House. Gov. Baker is a skeptic of eliminating fares, but he said during an appearance on WCVB’s “On the Record” chat show that the idea is “worth the conversation” if Boston pays.

“Somebody’s going to have to come up with a lot of money from somebody, and I do think if the city of Boston is willing to pay to give free T to the residents of the city of Boston, that’s certainly worth the conversation, I suppose,” the governor said. “But I don’t see a reason why you would expect people who live on the Cape, on the North Shore, in central or western Mass. who will never be anywhere near the T except on very rare occasions -- why they should pay to give everybody in Boston a free ride does not make any sense to me.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano said he was more focused on maintenance of the MBTA, while Senate President Karen Spilka said she is looking forward to meeting with Wu to discuss her priorities.

Asked about Baker’s comments, Wu told reporters, “This was always going to be a back and forth about what makes sense from the state and city partnering together. So I am very excited that the window is open, as I always knew it would be, to have these conversations.”

The fare-free Route 28 bus is an example of a conversation and a partnership between the state and the city, which put “some skin in the game,” according to Wu.

“There’s a lot to be done and however we arrive at that, the impact on the lives of Bostonians will be huge, of getting to remove barriers to get to where you need to go, to have the freedom and flexibility to benefit from every single resource in the city, no matter where you live, no matter where you’re trying to go, and the impacts on our climate which are incredibly dire,” she said.

Separately, Boston transportation officials are also waiting for sign-off on a federal grant application for the Blue Hill Avenue corridor. If approved, the grant would fund a center-running bus lane which could speed up and improve service. A previous effort, more than a decade ago, ran into headwinds as some community members raised concerns about the loss of parking spaces and trees along the median strip, as well as a lack of local input.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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