Hey, Free Riders: Welcome Aboard!


As I’ve mentioned before, our local transit agency here in Boston, the MBTA, is preparing to launch a round of service cuts and fare hikes – despite rising ridership that sets records on a nearly monthly basis.

Yet, as of this morning, there is one group of T riders who are getting a 100% discount on their transit fares. Starting today, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which runs Logan Airport, will pay the fares of passengers using the Silver Line bus rapid transit system to access the airport. The pilot program is estimated to cost Massport about $100,000 per month, but the authority has apparently judged that the cost of free transit rides would be worth it if it results in a reduction in curbside traffic and demand for spaces in airport parking garages.

The Logan Airport experiment goes to the heart of two important issues that often arise in transportation policy debates.

The first is the degree to which “users” of a mode of transportation system must be held responsible for paying its costs. The anti-transit crowd, I’m sure, will read about the Logan experiment, shake their fists at the sky and curse the injustice of it all – how dare those transit riders get free service when drivers have to pay through the nose for parking, gas and tolls to get to the airport! It’s cross-subsidization, I tell you!

But as Massport is discovering – and as thoughtful transportation experts have recognized for decades – riders aren’t the only ones who benefit from transit service. In this case, Massport is hoping that free transit service will keep their customers and the airlines happy and dissuade them from choosing competing airports. More generally, transit benefits society by reducing pollution, fostering economic growth, and curbing demands on other parts of the transportation system. Since drivers and society derive great benefits from transit service, it is perfectly justified to ask them to contribute to its continued operation.

The other question the Logan experiment raises is a little trickier. Clearly, institutions such as Logan Airport, major employers, universities, and retailers near transit stations derive great benefit from their locations near transit lines. In the case of a major employer, for example, the existence of nearby, high-quality transit might help attract employees, or defer the need for construction of a new parking garage. Yet, in most places, there is no mechanism for having these institutions provide financial support to transit systems that reflects the true value of the benefits they receive.

“Value capture” mechanisms could provide the financial shot-in-the-arm that enables transit systems like the MBTA to become sustainable financially – and they would be economically justified, to boot. The danger, however, is that reliance on private funding could tilt the scales of transportation decision-making to the point where wealthy institutions are effectively calling the shots about which transit services are provided – leaving bus routes or transit lines in less-wealthy neighborhoods or those without institutional sponsors to wither.

For now, the Logan experiment bears watching. There are several other small transit agencies – most notably, Advance Transit in New Hampshire and Island Transit in Washington – that have built effective models for fare-free service to address specific local transportation challenges. If the Logan experiment succeeds, expect to see more attention paid to these types of arrangements in the future.