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Cap on T fare hikes is lowered

The new law would allow the MBTA to raise fares by 7 percent every two years, lowering the existing limit of 10 percent.
The new law would allow the MBTA to raise fares by 7 percent every two years, lowering the existing limit of 10 percent. (Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe/File)

Governor Charlie Baker has quietly signed legislation that would stop the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority from raising fares by more than 7 percent every two years, acquiescing to the Legislature’s plan to lower the existing cap on future hikes.

The MBTA interprets current law to mean the agency can raise fares up to an overall average of 10 percent every two years, which this month allowed the agency to hike several passes and single-ride fares higher than 10 percent. But under the change signed by Baker, every single fare and pass can only be raised up to 7 percent during the same timeline.

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State senators who pushed to further limit fare hikes heralded the new law as a victory, with Senate President Stan Rosenberg characterizing the move as an example of how the chamber “has stood up for working families and millennials.”

“The Senate’s proposal sought to provide MBTA riders with the reasonability and predictability on fares that they need, and to end any lingering questions about applying the fare hike statute,” Rosenberg said in a statement.

Baker initially tried to change the Legislature’s proposal, instead allowing the T to increase some fares and passes higher and more often than 7 percent every two years. The Legislature, however, rejected the proposal and sent the measure back to Baker to sign or veto.

The administration had said Baker’s proposal would better allow the MBTA to “make offsetting adjustments,” which could mean allowing some fares to stay low or decrease while other fares were hiked at higher rates.

In a statement Wednesday, Billy Pitman, a Baker spokesman, said that the administration continues to believe such changes are important, but that it will respect the Legislature’s decision. The new law will not curtail the MBTA’s ability to make such adjustments, but — unlike under Baker’s initial plan — no single fare can be increased higher than 7 percent.

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Advocates for more public transportation cheered the governor’s approval of the Legislature’s language.

“There’s been a lot of confusion over many years about how fares can go up, and this will give us clarity,” said Rafael Mares, a vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “This is such an important change that it would have been worthwhile having a signing ceremony.”

Charlie Ticotsky, a policy director at Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of public transportation advocates, said modest and predictable fare increases are important to riders.

“Predictable fare hikes allow riders to plan ahead and are particularly important to riders with low and fixed incomes,” he said.

The law on the cap for the MBTA’s fare hike has been full of twists and turns. In 2013, the year after MBTA officials hiked fares an average of 23 percent, the Senate believed it had come to a consensus about limiting future fare hikes to 5 percent every two years.

But when the bill came out of a conference committee, the law said the MBTA “shall not increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 percent” — or not more than 10 percent every two years.

The language seemed to go largely unnoticed by the Legislature until the MBTA began considering fare increases last year that amounted to an average of 10 percent. State senators argued that they had intended to limit increases to 5 percent, despite that language.

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In addition, some worried about how certain passes and fares would be hiked by even more than 10 percent. Agency officials, including Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, said that passes could be increased at higher rates because they did not technically count as fares, but as discounts on fares.

MBTA officials stood behind their interpretation, and the agency’s fiscal control board eventually approved an average 9.3 percent fare hike that went into effect this month. The changes included a decrease in cash fares for bus riders from $2.10 to $2, but significant increases for others. Monthly passholders with unlimited bus and subway rides saw a 12.66 percent increase to $84.50, for example.

In May, state senators who had initially pushed for the fare hike cap again moved to limit fare hikes to 5 percent, this time through an amendment to the budget. When the budget came out of a conference committee, the limit had been increased to 7 percent and also clarified that monthly passes would also be subject to the cap.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.