Against “free” bus service; There is no such thing as free!

Credit: EastBoston.com

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Period

In promoting free bus service for the MBTA and Regional Transit Agencies, well-meaning advocates ignore the direct and indirect costs associated with such a plan. Removing fares eliminates a revenue stream transit agencies need to maintain current levels of service.

Free bus service sounds wonderful — and yes, it may bring some increase in ridership. But getting people to leave their cars behind and jump on the bus will be difficult. Transit agencies may need larger subsidies to absorb lost fares. Then, there is another unintended consequence; Current subway riders may choose the bus instead — diminishing overall revenue further. Clearly, there is no such thing as a free lunch or a free ride.

Equity for low-income riders is a commendable goal. But there are other ways to help those low-income riders, such as offering them reduced fares, something the MBTA already does with seniors and students. Moreover, why should we subsidize high-income riders, and tourists? Certainly, they have the ability to pay for service, so shifting costs away from them makes no sense and is not equitable.

Advocates argue that with free fares, ridership increases, and does so at a minimal cost since the expense of fare collection goes away. However, one study noted that expanded ridership can result in higher maintenance, vandalism, and potentially operating expenses. In a recent report, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board noted that free bus service would require significant capital investment in new buses, and higher operating costs.

Advocates also ignore the implications for The Ride, the paratransit, on-demand door-to-door service for people with disabilities. According to federal law if bus service was made fare free, The Ride would also have to be free — which translates into a loss for the MBTA.

Money from Washington, D.C., may help bridge the budget shortfall for a couple of years, allowing for some experimentation with free ride services. But once that money is gone the MBTA and RTAs could find themselves mired in deficits, hardly in position to forego fare revenues.

Free bus service, a blunt instrument with questionable goals, would destabilize rather than help our public transit agencies.

This article appeared in the June 6, 2021 print edition of the Boston Globe.