Janey sees fed aid as path to fare-free bus rides

Boston Mayor Kim Janey took questions from "Boston Public Radio" hosts and listeners during her inaugural "Ask The Acting Mayor" appearance on the GBH News show.

Free public transportation "would be great," according to Boston's acting mayor, who also said Thursday that she hopes state officials are looking at ways to use federal aid to make transit more equitable.

Mayor Kim Janey said in a radio interview she has been a "strong advocate" for making the MBTA's 28 bus route -- which runs from Mattapan to Ruggles Station -- free to riders, and that she is looking at ways to do so via a pilot program.

"It will hopefully increase ridership. It will also help with the on-time boarding because it'll be -- you know, no need to go through your bag and look for change and where's your CharlieCard and tapping it," she said during a GBH radio appearance. "So it will also increase the speed at which our buses flow through our city, and I think that is very important. As we do this pilot, it's important that we measure those things so we can see success and hopefully build from there."

The MBTA is a state-operated system. Its fares, last raised in 2019 over the objection of transit advocates and some Boston officials, are voted on by the agency's oversight board. The 2019 fare hike did not increase the cost of bus rides.

Co-host Jim Braude asked Janey if she would be open to free transit across the whole system -- she said she would be -- and what steps would be required to get her there.

"It's obviously going to cost money," Janey replied, noting that the MBTA is facing financial challenges.

The idea of free bus trips would need some buy-in from the MBTA, which has been under fire for service cuts it implemented in response to significant drops in ridership during the pandemic. While fewer riders means less fare revenue for the T, the federal government has steered large amounts of relief aid to the transit agency.

As federal relief funds land in Massachusetts, Janey said it is important to "look at piloting and see how we can use some of that federal money to get free buses."

"And I would say that we cannot continue to put the burden on our riders, particularly those who rely on bus transportation," she said. "Boston is the economic engine, not just for the commonwealth but for New England, and it's important that we not put all of that burden on bus riders, particularly when we know that they're more likely to be poor, more likely to be elderly, more likely to be people of color, so it is important that we think about ways that we can make this more equitable. I understand that there are challenges which is why I hope -- at the state level as well as the city level -- I am looking at that federal money and I hope our state partners are as well."

Janey, who was elevated from city council president to acting mayor on March 22, announced earlier this week that she will run for a full term in Boston's fall election. Other candidates have staked out positions on public transportation fares -- City Councilor Michelle Wu supports a fare-free transit system, and Councilor Andrea Campbell says in her transportation platform that she would work with state officials and others toward eliminating bus fares.

When she was elected city council president in January 2020, Janey highlighted the idea of free buses in her opening address, saying, "We must find new ways to tackle old problems, like free MBTA buses to increase ridership and improve traffic flow in our city."

As mayor, Janey has a driver. She said she still sometimes rides the T, though it can be "a bit of a production."

"But it's important," she said. "It's a way that I connect and stay grounded and see firsthand the challenges with our public transit and also interact with residents in our city to see how things are going."

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