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Pollack defends MBTA fare-hike plans

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack with Mayor Martin J. Walsh ( on the far right ) and Governor Charlie Baker in the background. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Defending fare hikes for the MBTA that could go into effect this July, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack on Thursday said she believes strongly in regular, modest increases for T riders.

“It is a chicken and an egg problem,” she said. “For us to improve service, we need resources.”

As the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s fiscal control board prepares to vote March 7, Pollack pushed back on the idea of not raising MBTA fares at all this year — a plea that many public transit advocates have made during public meetings about the proposals.

“What is troubling to me is that people are now backing off the idea of regular and modest [fare increases] and saying, ‘Well, let’s not do one at all. Fix the system first, and then you can raise fares,’ ” she said during a meeting with the Globe’s editorial board.


The MBTA’s fiscal control board is considering two proposals: One would increase prices systemwide by an average of 6.71 percent to raise $33.2 million. The other would increase prices systemwide by an average of 9.77 percent to raise $49.4 million.

On Thursday, Pollack did not indicate which scenario she would prefer and noted that fare hikes are not inevitable until board members vote.

But she made clear that she believed the MBTA had long raised its operating expenses without raising its fares, which led to unbalanced budgets and unpredictable fare hikes.

In 2013, legislators passed a law that capped how much the MBTA could raise its fares every two years, though there has been debate over whether they meant to cap the increases at 5 percent or at 10 percent. The administration believes officials can raise prices by 10 percent every two years.

“I do believe fare increases should go up modestly every two years on a regular basis, rather than [having transit officials] wait and wait and wait and then really spike them,” Pollack said.


Public reaction to the proposed fare increases has been fairly negative. About 73 percent of those who gave feedback to the MBTA had a “negative feeling” about them, according to data released last week.

Still, control board members and transportation officials have not shown many public signs that they will reject fare hikes. The MBTA has said it is developing a budget for next year that builds in a 5 percent increase.

Pollack said that one of the MBTA’s “mistakes” included talking about fare increases in percentages, rather than noting the relative affordability of the passes. Pollack and Governor Charlie Baker have repeatedly argued that the T’s prices are a good deal for riders, especially in comparison with those at other major transit systems.

“There is no question that for some of our riders, the current fares are unaffordable,” Pollack said. “The question is, is the difference between the fares we have and the fares that we are proposing so big that it exacerbates the affordability problem for a significant number of people?”

But Pollack also said the proposals could be changed in coming weeks, particularly for discount passes. For example, many riders have protested a possible 16 or 19.5 percent increase for bus-only passes, and Boston Public Schools administrators and parents have testified against the possibility of raising the price of student passes by 23 percent. In one scenario, fares for the Ride, the door-to-door van service for disabled riders, could go up 8.3 percent for most areas, and then 10 percent for certain areas in the suburbs.


“We are thinking of our students and our seniors and our Ride users and our bus riders, because we know those are the four categories where income and affordability are probably the biggest issues,” Pollack said.

The control board is expected to further discuss the proposals Monday, before voting the following week.

Josh Ostroff, partnerships director at Transportation for Massachusetts, said it recognizes that fare revenue is important — but that they wouldn’t want fares to go up more than 5 percent systemwide.

“The proposed fare increases will reduce ridership,” he said, “And that’s the wrong direction for the T.”

The T’s analyses say the steeper proposal could cut ridership by 1.6 percent, while the more modest proposal could cut it by about 1.2 percent.

Pollack’s interview on Thursday was far-ranging. She said the administration will be asking tougher questions about subjects such as procurement and maintenance for the vehicles that provide the MBTA’s core services.

MBTA officials, for example, recently visited Shanghai because a Chinese company will be building new cars for the Red and Orange lines under a $566.6 million contract.

Massachusetts officials realized the Chinese transit system used its fleets with the assumption that a number of cars would always be out of service, being rebuilt or repaired — in stark contrast with the MBTA, which tries to use all available cars to provide capacity during packed rush-hour commutes. That means the T could look into buying more cars, she said.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com.