The MBTA’s weekend commuter rail discount went well. But now it’s over
By all accounts, discounting commuter rail fares on the weekend was a big success. But now it’s over — and it’s not clear if or when it will return.
Over the past six months, the MBTA offered a special $10 pass allowing unlimited trips for a full weekend on all commuter rail lines. The goal was to draw ridership to trains that were running anyway, but were mostly empty — and cost up to $12.50 for a single ride.
The T sold about 180,000 of the passes since June, making up about 23 percent of overall weekend revenue during the test. During the course of the test, weekend commuter rail revenue grew compared with the same period in 2017 by about 4.6 percent.
The program wrapped up last weekend. Members of the T’s governing board liked the data so much Monday that they seemed ready to extend it. Then they were told that’s not allowed.
Federal rules require the agency to conduct a civil rights analysis to determine whether the price change was fair to low-income and minority riders if it lasts longer than six months. Until the study, called an equity analysis, is completed, the T can’t sell the passes, officials said Monday.
MBTA board members on Monday asked the T’s legal team to determine whether there was any way the reduced-price service could continue during the study. MBTA chairman Joseph Aiello suggested starting a new six-month fare experiment, perhaps at $9 or $11 for a pass, to circumvent the rules.
“A, it’s successful. B, during a period where you could see a real uplift of people visiting Boston during the holidays and all that, it would seem we should at least find a way,” Aiello said. “When you build ridership and start having a success . . . it would be harmful to that ridership to have an on-again-off-again approach to this.”
MBTA attorney Marie Breen said she would look into possible work-arounds, but it would require at least a week of analysis, and the fares will revert to normal this weekend.
Laurel Paget-Seekins, the T’s director of fare policy and analytics, said the federal rules explicitly require the equity analysis. It will likely take until January to complete the study, she said.
“We have to make sure we’re not giving a disparate benefit to some people and not other people,” Paget-Seekins said. “When we give benefits and lower prices, we have to make sure that’s also equitable.”
The T was scolded by the federal government in 2016 for initially skipping an equity analysis before canceling late-night weekend subway service.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt, another board member, said MBTA staffers should have begun preparing for the analysis before the end of the six-month test, so it could be completed sooner, keeping the fare in place.
“That’s incredibly frustrating,” she said. “You show all these wonderful statistics, all these great things are happening, and then are like, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re now ending them.’ ”
But MBTA revenue director Evan Rowe said the T wanted to collect data for the entire six-month period for the study.
Also on Monday, officials said they are eyeing short-term and long-term ideas for the bus system, launching a planning process that could lead to purchasing battery-powered buses in the future while also saying they will recommend about 50 tweaks early next year that would improve service on existing bus routes.