September 25 2019

Pilot Program to Test Replacing B-Line with Taxi/Lyft/Uber Subsidies Approved

By: Tad Stephanak

Town Meeting voted to approve a transportation subsidy pilot program which, if successful, could replace the town’s B-Line system.  

Article 7 at the September 23 Town Meeting called for $50,000 to be transferred from the B-Line Revolving Fund to a pilot program that would supplement Uber, Lyft and taxi rides for those who qualify. DPW Director John Sanchez presented to the assembly.

“As you recall the last few Town Meetings we’ve been talking about the future of the B-line as we’ve known it,” Sanchez said. 

Sanchez recapped the recent history of B-Line ridership saying a few years ago the B-Line was providing 50,000 rides a year. This past year the amount of rides has gone down to 10,500, and continues to decline. 

In looking for a long term solution, Sanchez explained they engaged Lexington and Bedford in a regional study of transportation. The collaboration received a grant for a yearlong Tri-Town study of transportation solutions. Sanchez stated the effort sought efficiency and possible reorganization.

“We were looking at making it more economically feasible for the three towns,” he explained. “However the solutions that presented themselves would cost more than what it is costing us right now.” 

The solution that seemed to be the best use of the B-Line funds is subsidized rides with Uber, Lyft or taxi at $10 a ride for those who qualify. Sanchez made the suggestion to Town Meeting.

“We recommend that we do a pilot program,” he said. “Which we will subsidize the current users of our B-Line to go, pretty much where they need to go, up to a cost of $10 per ride. We would do it based on three factors; age, disability and income.” 

Sanchez noted some benefits of the rideshare program.  

“This system will probably provide a better service than the one we currently have because it will be on demand,” he said. “It will probably break even as far as what the town is paying for the service. It will definitely provide a better service for our users. So tonight we’re asking you to allow us to use $50,000 that we currently have in the Burlington Transit system, to do this pilot program over six months.”

A regular B-Line user commented to the proposal.


“I take the B-Line two or three times a day,” she said. “I depend on it. If you take it away I won’t have transportation. If I call a taxi sometimes I have to wait 45 minutes to an hour. For Uber and Lyft you need to have a smartphone and I don’t have one. Also people in my building who are special needs who use B-Line everyday, if you take it away they won’t have it.” 


Council on Aging Director Marge McDonald addressed the issue of not having a smartphone.


“One of the things we would also be using is GoGo Grandparent,” she said. “It was invented by the grandson of a woman who lost her license and realized she didn’t have a smartphone for Uber or Lyft. You have to pay a little more but they set up the ride for you. It is an option that helps people navigate Uber and Lyft.” 


Precinct 3 Member Mildred Nash voiced her opposition to the plan while Dan DiTucci of Precinct 6 inquired about increasing the use of COA transportation.

“One of the huge limitations of using the two COA vans is our hours are only 9 to 3 and there’s really no way to increase those hours,” McDonald said.


Sherri Ellis of Precinct 3 expressed her regret at the town abandoning the B-Line and asked about the town insurance policy in subsidizing public transportation. 


“We are working with Town Counsel on that and we know other towns similar to us have been using this program and we are working through those details,” Sanchez responded. 


“I am a firm believer in public transportation but I also believe in taking care of your money,” Sanchez continued. ”If we had a field that nobody used at some point we’d stop cutting the grass and at some point we have to find something that works better for taxpayers and those who use the service costing us over $14 a ride to get someone from the town center to the mall. An Uber or Lyft costs less than that. We can make it more effective.” 


Precinct 3’s Monte Pearson asked who falls into the low-income to qualify. Sancezh said they are looking at anybody who is under 300 percent of the poverty line. 


Pearson went on to speak of the B-Lines service as not only transportation for seniors but also to help the town address traffic issues. Pearson asked if the town looked at a plan that has a bus that serves more areas of town. 


“We did all kinds of analysis,” Sanchez replied, adding that other plans they studied were less cost effective than what the town currently has. 


Jonathan Sachs of Precinct 7 argued the rideshare program is a good thing because it provides door-to-door service. He remarked how a person who is disabled or has no license or is too old is able to be picked up at their door. Sachs did say, however, that he feels it’s not good for society because it just adds more cars to the road. 


Nash made a plea to the assembly before the vote. 


“Vote this down and say ‘B-Line, get on the bus and make it work.’” she said. “Get in the people that can help. From the malls, from the business community, the people here who can make it work and come back to Town Meeting with a program that works.” 


Town Meeting vote to approve the pilot transportation program.  


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