The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is preparing to lower penalties for fare evasion as it plans a new system that would regularly require riders to verify they have paid for their rides.
For years, the MBTA has levied hefty fines against fare skippers, with a $100 citation for a first offense, $200 for a second, and $600 for a third. But in January, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a measure that decriminalized fare evasion and gave the MBTA authority to set its own fines. The T is now proposing to limit fines to $50 for each of the first three offenses, and $100 for each subsequent violation.
On Monday, members of the MBTA’s governing board pressed to lower the fines even further, to $25 or $10, although the commuter rail, where fares often exceed $10, could carry higher fines.
“Yes, it is lower than what it used to be, and it’s lower than some of our peer agencies, [but] $50 is a lot of money,” said board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt. “And especially in a situation where you have people evading a fare because they cannot afford it. Having a $50 fine for a $1.70 fare or $2.40 fare, I just don’t think is reasonable.”
The debate raises questions about fairness for low-income offenders but is also driven by technology, as the MBTA plans to switch to a new fare-collection system in the next few years.
Under the new all-electronic system, riders would be allowed to board buses and above-ground Green Line trolleys through back doors and be entrusted to tap a CharlieCard or a smartphone to a fare reader to pay. The so-called proof of payment honor system, common in many parts of the world, would require the MBTA to hire dozens of fare inspectors, who would fan out across the system to do spot checks to ensure riders have paid.
The goal is to make catching violators likely enough that riders would decide it’s not worth avoiding the fares. MBTA officials have estimated that $50 is the lowest amount that would have a deterrent effect. But Tibbits-Nutt, the board’s vice chair, said riders would be more influenced by the presence of inspectors than the size of the fines.
MBTA officials on Monday seemed amenable to lowering the fines below $50, with general manager Steve Poftak saying he “can tell which way the wind is blowing from the board’s sentiment.” The board is expected to finalize the fines later this month.
The new fare system will require a much more focused effort to deter fare evasion than the MBTA’s current approach, which essentially tasks Transit Police with citing those they catch in the act but sets no clear strategy. Police have in the past said that they cite more than 2,000 people a year for fare evasion.
The new system won’t take effect for at least two years, and longer for the commuter rail. Lynsey Heffernan, an acting assistant general manager at the MBTA, said fines are likely to be adjusted at that point, possibly with warnings for first-time offenders and different amounts for different modes of transportation when fines are levied.
MBTA officials said Monday that they would also drop a part of the fare-evasion plan that would have prohibited violators with multiple outstanding fines from renewing their driver’s licenses. Social justice and transit advocates had argued that’s unfair, because driving and using the T are not connected; officials said they reserve the right to revisit the idea.
Advocates have also pressed the MBTA to tie fare-evasion policy changes to a long-considered proposal to give low-income riders discounted fares, since many fare evaders struggle to afford transportation costs.
The MBTA has been discussing reduced fares for almost all of Baker’s administration but has made relatively little progress. The primary issues are replacing the lost revenue and developing a simple way to verify that people qualify.
On Monday, board member Brian Lang encouraged the MBTA to make the idea a higher priority. Fare-evasion penalties should not be allowed to rise again until a low-income fare program has been implemented, he suggested.
“I think it’s helpful for us to brainstorm, and even throw out ideas that maybe seem crazy at this point, just to get the conversation going” about fares for low-income riders, Lang said. “Because otherwise, this is just an exercise in futility,”
The MBTA took a small step in that direction Monday, extending its Youth Pass program to the commuter rail, express buses, and ferries. The Youth Pass has since 2017 provided discounted bus and subway trips to low-income riders ages 18 to 25 in several Boston-area municipalities, but there is no similar option for older low-income passengers.
The T’s proposed rule change would also create a $70 fine for anybody caught using a reduced-fare card that isn’t theirs, such as a Youth Pass or a Senior CharlieCard.