The MBTA’s fiscal control board approved a policy Monday that expressly allows officials to raise fares by up to 10 percent every two years.
State transportation officials are weighing a fare increase in 2016, and Monday’s vote offered a clue to where the board could be headed. But the decision is expected to intensify a debate on Beacon Hill over whether the T can raise fares that much.
The vote came shortly after transportation officials revealed that nearly a quarter of
MBTA employees will make more than $100,000 this year, including overtime and retroactive pay raises— a figure that prompted the chairman of the board to request an audit.
The board, established earlier this year by Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature, is charged with righting the troubled Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority after last winter’s paralyzing storms laid bare some longstanding financial woes.
The T hasn’t formally proposed fare increases yet, but public transportation advocates have argued that a law on the books should stop the MBTA from hiking prices more than 5 percent every two years.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s legal counsel, however, cite that same 2013 law in arguing that the MBTA can raise fares by up to 10 percent this July.
“I hope it doesn’t go to court, and I hope that we can work all of this out,” Pollack said. “But I think it’s important for people to understand that the legislation does say what it says.”
Using a CharlieCard, riders now pay $1.60 on buses and $2.10 on the subway. Commuter rail rides range from $2.10 to $11.50. Monthly passes for unlimited rides on buses and the subway cost $75; commuter rail monthly passes cost between $75 and $362. The T may choose to raise fares at different rates for each mode.
The MBTA most recently raised its fares last year, increasing prices by an average of 5 percent across the system.
The law on fare hike limits, reached after months of debate over transportation financing, says the MBTA “shall not increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 percent.”
State Representative William Straus, a co-chairman of the Legislature’s joint transportation committee, believes the law allows the 10 percent increase every two years. But several state senators, including Senator Thomas M. McGee, Straus’s co-chairman, have said the Senate pushed for 5 percent increases every two years.
McGee stopped short of saying that an increase beyond 5 percent would be in violation of the law, saying he would “cross that bridge when we get there.” But he said the administration would have to justify a 10 percent increase to the public, a move that he would oppose.
Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, another legislator who worked on the bill, said she also fought to keep the limit at 5 percent every two years.
“It was absolutely the Senate’s intent to limit the increases to no more than 5 percent every two years, and it was also the advocacy community’s understanding of the bill that Governor Patrick signed,” she said in a statement.
Control board members are expected to release specific fare hike proposals in early January, followed by hearings later that month.
Pollack defended such increases as an important tool to fund the agency.
“The vast majority of the MBTA’s budget comes from either statewide taxpayers or from riders, and there’s got to be a balance with asking taxpayers who never take the T to pay the bills and asking riders who use it every day to pay the bills,” she said.
Rafael Mares, a vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said he believes any fare increases over 5 percent will upset riders. The 2013 law was supposed to give them “modest and predictable” increases, he said.
“What we’re missing now is the modest part,” he said. “And we’re missing the predictable part, because people expected 5 percent every other year. Suddenly, it’s 10 percent every other year.”
In recent months, the fiscal control board has heard frank reports about the MBTA’s persistent financial problems. On Monday, Brian Shortsleeve, the agency’s chief administrator, revealed that a maintenance worker was paid $315,000 for 4,455 hours of work this year.
Board member Lisa Calise asked Shortsleeve to audit numbers from that case, given the large number of hours a week that the worker would have had to complete to earn such overtime pay.
According to the MBTA’s numbers, about 24 percent of the MBTA’s 6,500 employees, including administrative workers, earned more than $100,000 this year. Shortsleeve compared that with 7.7 percent of about 44,100 workers at other state agencies, such as the State Police and the Department of Health and Human Services.
This year’s wages were out of the ordinary, however: For example, MBTA employees worked more overtime because of the record-breaking storms. Four unions also received retroactive wages for three to five years, including raises promised under the last administration and awards from contract disputes.
Shortsleeve also said the MBTA’s average rail operator hourly wage — $35.58 — was 30 percent above the national average. The MBTA’s bus operators, who earn an average of $34.99 an hour, make about 50 percent above the national average, according to an analysis by John A. Dash & Associates.
Some of the numbers surprised control board members and prompted Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the board, to request an audit of a system that would allow that much overtime. He said he worried about productivity for workers who were on the clock too much.