Commuter rail faces a ridership crisis. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic’s first wave, ridership collapsed by at least 92 percent. While ridership has recovered, it remains well below 2019 levels. Now, with some workplaces reopening and leisure activities resuming, commuter rail ridership remains low, but highway traffic is already back to pre-pandemic levels and worsening. The MBTA cannot effectively respond to this situation by retaining a complex and expensive fare regime. In order to reverse the return of burdensome and air-polluting traffic congestion, the MBTA must adopt a more affordable and rational approach to commuter rail fares.
Uncertainty remains about the durability of remote working and the scale of new flexible working hours. As white-collar employers shift to a hybrid model for office work, transportation needs are in flux. Meanwhile, low-income riders and those from environmental justice communities have continued to rely on transit — but a fare system that charges riders from Gateway Cities anywhere from $6 to $13 for a one-way trip cannot serve them. This broken system is leaving money on the table and putting more cars on the road.
The best way to meet the region’s changing commuting needs is by enabling safe, fast, and reliable transit options for everybody, which means commuter rail needs to be much cheaper.
Currently, there are 11 zones, ranging from Zone 1A, covering the center of the inner core, to Zone 10, which covers the farthest stations on the Providence Line. Passengers pay roughly based on distance from the terminal stations, and Zone 1A fares are equivalent to the subway fare. There are also Interzone fares that allow for lower costs for trips starting and ending outside of Zone 1A. Overall, though, the cost of travel is high, with the highest fares being more than five times the price of a trip on the MBTA’s rapid transit lines.
It costs $9.95 in tolls and fuel to drive from Worcester to Boston on the Mass. Pike, while a commuter rail trip costs $12.25 (using the federal gasoline reimbursement rate of $0.16 per mile) — despite taking up no space on roads and polluting far less than a highway jammed with vehicles. Many people driving into Boston have free or heavily subsidized parking. Even with the cost of car ownership taken into account, rail fares from Worcester are more expensive than driving, while providing a slower and less convenient trip.
Although the latest schedules have improved frequency, the MBTA’s recent moves on affordability have gone in the wrong direction. The pilot of Zone 1A fares (equivalent to the cost of the subway) from Lynn has ended. Zone 1A fares from Quincy Center to South Station, instituted during the reconstruction of Wollaston station, were also revoked. The MBTA’s rationale for ending the Lynn pilot was that it did not increase ridership.
Ending these pilots is short-sighted. For one, fare reform is a long-term process, and aggressively assessing ridership during a state of emergency where people have been encouraged to stay home is a flawed approach. For another matter, marketing of the cheaper fares from Lynn was poor to nonexistent.
Fare reductions can boost ridership. When all but the southernmost two Fairmount Line stations were moved into the 1A fare zone, effectively cutting fares almost in half, ridership tripled. Introducing $10 weekend passes on the commuter rail was an unqualified success in boosting weekend ridership, when high, confusing fares and unusable schedules had suppressed use. This is the model the MBTA should use to approach the current drop in ridership.
With little effort, the MBTA could place the remainder of the Fairmount Line, the Newburyport/Rockport Line up to Lynn, and all stations at an equivalent distance in Zone 1A. Simultaneously, the agency should pursue partnerships with regional transit authorities, local governments, and the business community to subsidize fares to and from Gateway Cities, similar to the pilot established by Brockton Area Transit and the T.
Looking at the system as a whole, the MBTA should move toward a unified-fare zone system, with affordable fares on all modes that are comparable to rapid transit. At the high end, fares from Worcester, Providence, or, soon, Fall River and New Bedford, should not cost more than three times the cost of a subway fare. Zones should align with the extent of the rapid transit and bus network and integrate with other transit operators around the region.
It has been known for some time that the commuter rail model was inequitable and didn’t serve those with nontraditional hours — but at current ridership levels, it’s flat-out unsustainable. The rails need to be open and affordable to everyone.
Ethan Finlan is regional rail campaign coordinator of TransitMatters. Jarred Johnson is executive director of TransitMatters. Matthew Petersen is a program manager at TransitMatters. Jim Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board. Matthew M. Robare is regional rail communications director for TransitMatters.