A widely available discounted pass for college students would seem like a no-brainer in this town full of universities — so why is the notion taking so long to catch on?
The MBTA has been trying to launch a better “university pass” program that would offer deeper discounts to college students, but officials say colleges aren’t exactly rushing to take part in it.
Right now, the T has a “semester pass” program: Students at 58 participating universities and colleges can buy passes through their schools to get an 11 percent discount on fares, including the expensive commuter rail system.
But at many of the large schools, no more than 14 percent of students take advantage of the pass. During the 2016 fiscal year, the program brought in about $7.5 million, with about 12,500 students taking part in the program.
Those numbers are far from impressive, considering the stats that the Chicago Transit Authority boasts. Chicago’s college discount program brings in about $32 million per year, with more than 100,000 students participating.
But there are crucial differences. The Chicago program is mandatory for students in participating colleges, and they get a much deeper discount for its unlimited use — a fee that comes out to $1.07 a day.
Evan Rowe, the T’s director of revenue, reminded board members on Monday that the agency has tried to develop new options for the pass, including embedding CharlieCard chips in student identification cards. T officials had met with officials in schools such as Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University, Tufts, and UMass Boston, but there was little movement.
During this current fiscal year, officials tried again, but many universities didn’t seem interested in a program mandating that all students buy passes, even if they were cheaper.
Despite the lukewarm reception, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said that new fare collection technology, which will apply to new CharlieCards and other passes, could help eventually develop a worthwhile plan for college students.
“I’m not sure the way we’ve marketed it to the universities is the right way,” she said.
At least one board member made it sound like progress on the university pass isn’t a high priority.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt said she’d rather see the agency pay more attention to a corporate pass program, which has more willing partners. She also said larger discounts for college students could take a big bite out of the T’s revenue.
“The idea of giving a deep discount at the rate we’re already charging for fares — it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” she said.
The end of the line
This is my last column on the transportation beat, so I feel like it’s time to confess: I actually have a terrible sense of direction. But that’s what made this topic even more valuable for me — I had to become an expert on how to get from here to there in Greater Boston, and I like to think I succeeded on some level.
Before I arrived at The Boston Globe in the fall of 2014, everyone told me the transportation beat would be relentlessly busy. Still, I don’t think any of those people had anticipated just how much transportation would dominate the news a few months later — a period that I now affectionately refer to as “the winter of the snowy hellscape that was Greater Boston.”
I was assigned to cover the T just a few months before our transportation system came to a standstill amid a record-breaking onslaught of snow. I was right there as the MBTA shut down for entire days, its general manager stepped down, and traction motor problems and locomotive breakdowns frustrated everyone across the region.
Transportation is a crucial part of our lives, and it has been fascinating to hear so many perspectives on how we can improve our transit system. Like my other Starts and Stops predecessors, I’m grateful to all of you for the many tips and questions you’ve sent about what’s going wrong — and occasionally, what’s going right — with your commute.
There is such a wealth of stories to cover, whether it’s the new leadership at the MBTA, the continued fight for protected bicycle lanes that could help save lives, or the advent of self-driving cars.
I’m leaving the beat to work on stories with the Globe’s projects team, but the transportation coverage will continue. The new reporter, Adam Vaccaro, has already written about the MBTA’s new interim general manager, and he will soon take over Starts and Stops.
I’m glad he’ll be here to pick up where I left off.