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Time to get creative on Uber and Lyft fees

Hiking ride-hailing taxes won’t solve the T’s money problems or the city’s traffic congestion woes, but well-crafted fees could help.

Ann Iturra (left) and Jeremy Reineck huddled over a cell phone as they tried to navigate ride-hailing at the Uber and Lyft pickup at Logan Airport after arriving in Boston from Florida in December.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft aren’t a golden goose that can fund all the MBTA’s many needs. Nor will a modest hike in the cost to riders solve the region’s traffic congestion problems.

But creatively applied, a fee hike on “transportation network companies” can help on both scores.

Governor Charlie Baker is proposing to fund more than half of that $135 million he promised in new funding for the cash-strapped T with an 80-cent fee hike on each ride hailed anywhere in the state.

The $1 fee, up from the current 20 cents per ride, would generate $120 million. Of that, $84 million would go to the state, and most of that state share — $73 million — would go to the T. Cities and towns would split the other 30 percent of the proceeds, or an estimated $36 million.


As Baker sees it, it’s a twofer. As he put it in his State of the Commonwealth address, “Transportation network companies provide a valuable service, but they clog our roads and operate with very little oversight.”

Uber officials, using the state’s own numbers, pointed out that ride-hailing accounted for only about 4 percent of trips originating in Boston in 2018.

“We recognize that we contribute to congestion,” Josh Gold, public affairs director for Uber, told a meeting of Globe editors and reporters. “But we’d like to see an approach that addresses that holistically.”

Gold was quick to point an accusing finger at such other congestion culprits as Amazon delivery vans and FedEx trucks. Uber has long insisted fairness demands a broader congestion pricing policy that shares the pain of increased fees and taxes. Congestion pricing is, indeed, a long-term solution that the state and municipalities should pursue.

But in the meantime, there is no disputing the impact of the estimated 100 million ride-hail trips a year, including, as Baker put it, the “wear and tear” on the state’s roads and bridges from those trips.


If there is a flaw in Baker’s proposal, it is that it’s too blunt. It fails to distinguish between different kinds of ride-hailing customers: Maybe rush-hour riders who could take transit but don’t, for instance, should be paying a higher fee than riders who travel in the middle of the night when the T’s closed and there’s little traffic.

The fee structure could also reward using Uber Pool. Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Eileen McAnneny said her organization supports the fee but would prefer to see a tiered fee structure that recognizes the value in sharing those rides.

“Getting creative is appropriate in this situation because not all Uber trips are alike — because the impact of those trips is not alike,” said Aaron Michlewitz, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman.

Michlewitz, who helped craft the 2016 legislation regulating the ride-hailing industry here and imposing that initial 20-cent fee, indicated he wouldn’t like the state to get as “creative” or make rides as costly as Chicago or New York City have managed to do.

New York imposed a $2.75 per ride fee in parts of Manhattan last year, but 75 cents for shared pool rides. There too, the fee is intended to help fund public transportation and help relieve congestion, especially in the heart of the city.


Just this month Chicago imposed the nation’s highest fee — $3 for trips that start or end in a designated downtown zone — up from the previous flat fee of 72 cents a ride. Their legislation lowers the fee for shared rides to 65 cents but raises it to $1.25 in that same downtown zone.

As Michlewitz pointed out, however, setting fees in one large city is far different from attempting to establish a structure for cities and towns across the state.

A companion piece of legislation Baker filed last summer, but which has yet to move through the Legislature, would require ride-hailing services to provide the kind of data the state could certainly use to better regulate the industry. Getting that data would surely take some of the guesswork out of where and when the services are having an impact on traffic.

But for now this modest fee increase, if more finely tuned, will give the T a needed infusion of cash and begin to address the impact of ride-hail services on our congested streets.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.