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Starts & Stops

Get ready: The MBTA’s next fare hike is probably on its way

Odds are, you’ll soon be paying more to ride the MBTA.
Odds are, you’ll soon be paying more to ride the MBTA.(Globe Staff/File)

If MBTA riders dread anything more than signal problems or disabled trains, it might just be a fare hike. But it sure looks like one is coming soon, and T officials are expected to start the process in earnest Monday at a meeting of the agency’s governing board.

The T has signaled for months that it plans to raise rates this summer.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo declined to detail what the agency is proposing for new fares prior to the board meeting. Any decision won’t be final for several weeks, and will require the T board’s approval.

This will be the fourth increase since 2012, though the first in three years. The T’s philosophy in recent years has been to boost fares more frequently but at smaller rates, to keep up with rising costs, such as scheduled wage increases and ballooning pension contributions. Previously, the T typically raised fares less frequently but by larger amounts, such as a 23 percent increase in 2012.

Currently the agency is allowed by law to raise fares every two years. And as of 2016, it can only increase them by a maximum of 7 percent each time — a rule that lawmakers put in place after the last increase topped 9 percent.

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But the idea of smaller, more regular fare hikes has been little solace to riders and advocates, who have argued the T should improve service before asking riders for more money. In 2016, officials raised rates in the face of activists who chanted and demonstrated at a packed board room, often drowning out the voices of board members.

Alternatives for Community and Environment, a Roxbury nonprofit that led the 2016 protests, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Meanwhile, the T this week announced a new program with Chelsea officials to distribute plastic CharlieCards at City Hall. Residents can pay for one of 500 cards pre-loaded with $5, and another 500 cards are available for free with no money on them.

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Riders get a discount if they pay with a CharlieCard; a $2.75 subway ride instead costs $2.25, and a $2 bus ride instead costs $1.70. And if more riders pay with CharlieCards, it can boost bus service, because passengers board more quickly when they aren’t fumbling for cash.

But CharlieCards can be hard to come by, especially outside the T’s subway system, where most of its vending machines are located. Chelsea has no subway station, but has a large bus-riding population.

“CharlieCard availability has historically been concentrated around major rapid-transit hubs; similarly, fare vending machines are clustered around rapid-transit stations,” the MBTA said in a statement. “Under this initiative, the MBTA is acknowledging access to cards needs to increase, especially in communities with a higher reliance on buses.”

T officials said they want to replicate the program elsewhere. In fact, they’ll have to — and at large scale — within a couple years. The MBTA is planning to install new fare technology across the entire system that will bar cash payments on-board buses and trolleys. Instead, riders will need to use another form of payment — such as a CharlieCard or a smartphone — to pay.

But some activists worry there aren’t enough CharlieCards or vending machines to make it easy for those riders who use cash to switch. Officials say they intend to install machines at busy bus stops and community centers, and work with retailers near bus stops who will distribute and add money to CharlieCards.

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