Boston City Council passes $8 million grant for free transit program

(Photo by Nicole Hoey/BU News Service)

By Rin Velasco
Boston University News Service

This week, the Boston City Council approved an $8 million grant to fund three bus lines with no fare payment required of riders, serving neighborhoods that include Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.

The fare-free transit grant will allow passengers to ride the Route 23, 28 and 29 buses without charge for two years. The grant is being paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funds, as these bus routes cut through the areas and communities most harshly affected by the pandemic. 

Passing almost unanimously on Wednesday, Councilor Michael Flaherty said the grant is an effort to help Boston recover and reopen its economy and test whether free bus and train rides will result in quicker service and decreased traffic. 

“We’re a city that’s rich with opportunity,” Flaherty said. “The problem we have is connecting folks to those valuable resources.”

City Councilor Matt O’Malley said he supports the measure, asserting free transit contributes to public health, helps eliminate inequity and increases job growth. 

“The benefits are more than just simply allowing for fare-free T on three different bus routes,” O’Malley said. “I am proud to support [the grant] and urge my colleagues to support it as well.”

City Councilor Andrea Campbell said the city of Boston should be cautious of where the federal COVID-19 relief money goes and urged the city to wait to spend such funds until the informed will of the public can be heard. 

“I stand in full support of this initiative,” Campbell said. “But at the end of the day, these are precious dollars or once-in-a-lifetime dollars that city of Boston residents will get.” 

The aforementioned city councilors as well as Councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Lydia Edwards and Kenzie Bok, among others, voted in favor of the grant. 

City Councilor Frank Baker was the only member to vote against the measure. Baker said part of his opposition stems from the lack of information on where the money to fund fare-free transit will come from after the COVID-19 funds run out in two years. 

“This is city finances. I care about city operations first,” Baker said. “Year three is going to be a very difficult vote for this body.” 

Baker said this matter needs to be taken seriously and even though he supports the spirit of the measure, he could not abide by its financial consequences by voting on it. 

In a hearing two days prior to the vote, Baker questioned municipal officials whether fare-free transit would be paid for by slashing Boston’s Parks Department or Police Department’s budget. 

Vineet Gupta, director of planning at the Boston Transportation Department, said the fare-free transit for routes 23, 28 and 29 should begin in early-to-mid-2022, with $6 million of the grant going toward paying for the bus lines and a certain amount of the remainder to be paid to the MBTA should ridership expectations not be met. 

“We will also use this funding for marketing and getting the word out to local communities and residents so that they can take advantage of this program,” Gupta said. 

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