Even as a segment of the population obsesses about the fluctuation in the price of a gallon of gas, tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents face the equally daunting burden of buying that monthly MBTA pass or coping with the steep price of a commuter rail ticket to get to work.
As this legislative session draws to a close, the Senate is making yet another attempt to require the T to offer reduced fares to those most in need — low income riders who depend on the system to get to work or school, but find the price of a $90 monthly pass taking a sizable chunk of their income amid the rising costs of food and rent.
“We need public transportation, and people who oftentimes make the least amount of money need it the most,” Senator Lydia Edwards told her colleagues during debate last week on a proposal to “create a system where we can come up with a financially sustainable way” to support a low-income fare program for the T.
Edwards’s move came in the form of an amendment to a $10.8 billion Transportation Bond bill now approved by the Senate. That bill doesn’t include the funding that will be essential to any future fare program — to make up for lost revenue to an already deficit ridden transit system. But it would set in motion a way to get there with a timetable that could make it a reality as early as next summer.
A similar proposal advanced last year was vetoed by Governor Charlie Baker who said in his veto message at the time, “No means-tested fares can be implemented until the MBTA and RTAs [Regional Transit Authorities] have a financially sustainable plan in place to replace the lost revenue.”
Fair enough. But the Edwards amendment leaves ample time in which to do that and specifically states, “The implementation analysis shall include. . . the overall impact on revenue to the system . . . and estimated costs associated with the administration and marketing of the program.”
It would also require the T to come up with an estimate of the number of riders who would benefit from the program and the best way to determine their eligibility.
The T is Edwards’s main focus, but regional transit authorities would be encouraged but not required to investigate implementing means-tested free or reduced fares.
This time around Baker’s office would only say “the administration will carefully review any legislation that reaches the governor’s desk.”
The wide-ranging bond bill also includes billions of dollars for roads, bridges, MBTA modernization, some $400 million for T safety-related projects (now the subject of special legislative fact-finding hearings) and $275 million to advance an East-West commuter rail system.
Another successful Edwards amendment would provide $28 million for a three-to-five-year pilot project to use multistop ferry service to potentially connect Gloucester, Salem, Lynn, Winthrop, East Boston, the North End, South Boston, and Quincy. That got bipartisan support with Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester noting, “This amendment is as important to the coast as the East-West rail line is to that part of the Commonwealth.”
Both the ferry amendment and the low income fare programs would require sign-off by the House as the overall bill heads for a conference committee.
The MBTA already offers reduced fares to those over age 65, the disabled who qualify for Medicare, some middle and high school students, and a means-tested Youth Pass to those 25 and under.
Last February, MBTA staff estimated it would cost between $52 million and $85 million annually to offer half-fare rides to those earning 200 percent or less of the federal poverty limit, assuming the program would attract between 49,000 and 89,000 bus and transit riders. Increased demand would, of course, increase the cost too.
It is a fact of life that nationally poor families spend a larger portion of their income on transportation than affluent ones — 28.8 percent for the bottom fifth economically versus 9.5 percent for the top fifth.
Massachusetts has the resources to do something about that, to even the score, and the knowledge base to do it in a fair and equitable manner.
Setting in motion a plan to ease the burden for those whose need is the greatest is the right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.