What the Biden infrastructure bill could mean for public transportation in Mass.

  • A bus makes its way down Main Street in Northampton to the stop in front of the Academy of Music to pick up passengers. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A passenger boards a bus at the stop in front of the Academy of Music in Northampton recently. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 12/27/2021 8:19:19 PM
Modified: 12/27/2021 8:18:51 PM

BOSTON — The recently passed $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill that will bring Massachusetts up to $2.8 billion in the next five years is slated to enhance public transportation in the state, but how the money will be allocated remains up in the air.

One popular idea among officials is fare-free public transportation.

For example, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority decided this month to extend fare-free busing for another year. During a recent advisory board meeting, Director Dennis Lipka laid out a plan for the transit system where he pushed for a yearlong extension of the fare-free busing to allow more time for the board to develop a new fare policy.

The WRTA first implemented free busing in March 2020 to allow riders to stay socially distanced. The decision proved to be both popular and successful, as Federal transit data showed that the WRTA saw the highest level of ridership compared to pre-COVID-19 levels among all transportation systems in the state.

The fare-free decision has been extended a few times but hasn’t always been supported by officials. Lipka was not originally a fan of the idea, and only recently began to support it due to ample federal funding.

In fact, funding available to the WRTA at the moment is unprecedented thanks to two stimulus packages and, now, even more funding coming from the infrastructure bill. With this solid financial footing in place, Lipka feels much more comfortable extending the zero-fare initiative.

A similar fare-free model, either throughout the system or on certain routes, has not been discussed by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority Advisory Board, said PVTA Administrator Sandra Sheehan.

“One of the reasons is that fares make up 15% of revenue, and compared to other systems it’s quite a bit,” Sheehan said.

PVTA brings in about $7 million annually through the fares. With constant demand for more service, the agency wouldn’t have the ability to provide this if it discontinued fares, Sheehan said.

But Sheehan said PVTA does have fare-free Tuesdays for seniors, people ages 60 and over. And the buses that are part of the UMass Transit system, which operate in the Northampton and Amherst area, don’t have fare boxes because of PVTA’s agreements with the Five College Consortium and the university.

The pandemic has continually acted as a catalyst to change the status quo when it comes to transportation in the state. With the recent addition of a zero-fare bus pilot program on the MBTA’s Route 28 bus line and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s support for more fare-free public transportation, the state seems to be moving in a new direction.

Wu has requested that Boston City Council use $8 million in pandemic relief to eliminate fares on various city bus routes. Boston’s mayor has used the success of the pilot program with the Route 28 bus to tout her new plans for fare-free busing.

“I am excited to take this key step towards a brighter transit future. Building on the fare-free 28 bus pilot created by Mayor Janey, we will expand access to transit across our neighborhoods, connecting more people to their schools, places of worship, small businesses, and community centers –– and easing congestion on our bus riders and drivers alike. With stronger ties between our communities, we’ll reshape the boundaries of what’s possible in our city,” said Wu in a statement.

East-west rail

Another transportation idea in talks within the state is the creation of an east-west passenger rail connecting Boston to Springfield and Pittsfield. The need for a new rail line connecting western Massachusetts to Boston has been discussed for years, with advocates in high places such as U.S. House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal of Springfield and U.S. House Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern of Worcester.

The infrastructure bill includes more than $60 billion for intercity rail projects which excites east-west rail advocates.

“This is a very big deal to the project and the best hope we’ve seen,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, one of the leading supporters for the creation of an east-west rail.

The line would also set up an inland train route between Boston and New York City, alleviating the at-capacity current route which hugs the coastline of Rhode Island and Connecticut. By doubling the capacity on Boston to New York City train routes, it has the potential to take hundreds of planes out of the sky that fly the same route.

“If you have more train capacity, more people would take the train which would be a lot better for the environment and burn a lot less emissions,” said Lesser.

This line also would connect Worcester directly to New York City by rail, the very first direct transportation connection between those two cities.

“It would be completely transformational and stitch the whole Northeast together, it would create thousands of new jobs, take tens of thousands of cars and hundreds of planes away,” Lesser said.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is currently conducting a study examining the idea, however, the agency has previously under-reported the potential ridership of the rail by leaving out the neighboring Hartford area.

Lesser expressed his disappointment at the recent MassDOT study.

“It’s an embarrassment, we had been pleading with (MassDOT) for two years to include the Hartford area. They spent two years and more than a million dollars researching this and they just forgot that a huge metropolitan area, Hartford, is immediately to the south of Springfield,” Lesser said.

Additional studies conducted by the Hartford area Council of Governments showed that when metro Hartford was included, ridership numbers go up 54%.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh recently visited Springfield Union Station to join Neal to discuss how the infrastructure bill will spur economic growth in the state.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides historic levels of federal funding for Massachusetts’ infrastructure, which has long suffered a systemic lack of investment. By modernizing transportation systems and building sustainable transit options for all communities, this historic plan will create millions of jobs, strengthen America’s economy and provide workers a pathway to the middle class.” said Walsh in a statement.

At the station, Walsh underscored the importance of an east-west passenger railway in the state.

“Massachusetts will also receive a significant part of $66 billion in new investment in intercity passenger rail,” Walsh said. “As a former mayor of Boston I understand the importance of the east-west rail, so that we can create a West Station to bring people in from the City of Boston and the same with people from the city coming to work in the western part of the state.”

“I can’t stress enough, these two bills are investments in our roads and bridges, investments in our families, and investments in America,” Walsh said.

As for when the state may start to see the money from the bill, Walsh said that cities in the state could start seeing money as soon as the middle of 2022 although a lot of planning must still happen at the federal level before then.

Roseli Arena writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program. Gazette staff writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this report.


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