With traffic so bad, is it really the time to raise T fares?
Boston has the worst rush-hour traffic in the country, according to a new ranking. Subway and bus ridership is declining. And the Baker administration has an explicit goal of moving more drivers to public transit.
And yet the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is on track to increase fares 6.3 percent systemwide in July.
The proposed fare increase is causing concern among some transit specialists, who say it could lead to a drop in the number of people who take the bus, train, and subway. Fewer people using mass transit, in turn, would make it that much harder for the state to cut back on congestion and to tackle climate change — another major goal.
Governor Charlie Baker remains opposed to raising the gas tax and has been reluctant to consider raising tolls or to adopt other financial measures that may prod drivers to give up the car commute and use public transit. That means fare increases are one of the few ways to raise revenue to pay for the T.
The approach is in keeping with the governor’s longstanding belief that the best way to draw riders to transit is to improve service — to make it more reliable and more frequent — and not by making driving less attractive.
“I believe that if you invest in the core systems so that the T is the reliable, dependable service it’s supposed to be, people will maybe say, ‘I should get out of my car,’ ” Baker said in 2018.
Improving transit on a broad scale takes a lot of money — billions for new trains, buses, and other equipment, and to increase service frequency.
And with the costs to run the T increasing each year, the state is asking riders to pay more rather than increasing the amount that nonriders pay through taxes or fees.
Todd Litman, a transportation researcher in Canada, said this is the path North American transit officials tend to take. And, he added, it’s not unreasonable; he has found that riders typically value better service over lower fares.
Yet he cautioned about a boomerang effect from raising fares.
“Most transit systems are experiencing reductions in ridership, and there is a danger of the death spiral: rising fares, reduced ridership, reduced revenue, and needing to raise fares again,” he said. “I think there’s a fair argument right now that even though a system may need more revenue, we might want to look for other sources.”
Massachusetts law suggests that the MBTA recover more of its expenses from fares, by an additional 10 percent every five years. Presently, fares account for about one-third of the authority’s operations, with the rest coming from municipalities, the state and federal governments, and a portion of the state sales tax that’s dedicated to Greater Boston’s transit system.
“Let’s not forget that the taxpayers who never ride the system write a check every year for over a billion dollars to the MBTA. And the trade on that is that fares need to cover about 40 percent of their operations,” Baker said in January, in response to the proposed fare increase.
The proposed increase, on its own, is modest: 15 cents more for a subway trip, bringing the price to $2.40, and $5.50 more for monthly bus and subway passes. The biggest increase, $25 a month, would be for those who already pay the most: commuter rail riders from the edges of the system.
It would be the fourth MBTA fare increase since 2012, when a subway ride cost $1.70 — part of a deliberate strategy to keep rate hikes predictable but modest. But some critics argue a fare hike is the wrong approach.
A fare increase “is not only unfair to riders, it would also drive many away from the system, worsening traffic on our roads and driving increased emissions,” Democratic state Senator Nick Collins of South Boston wrote in a recent letter to the T.
Indeed, even the MBTA acknowledges a fare increase could reduce ridership by 1.3 percent.
Still, the MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, said the T could offset that through service improvements, such as dedicated bus lanes and other features that are intended to make transit faster and more attractive.
“If the MBTA offers a solution to surface road congestion that customers feel they can depend on, I believe ridership will go up,” Poftak said.
Even with those promises, the fare increase has sparked a debate about financing the region’s transportation system.
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, for example, said the T should eventually be free, starting with discounts for certain riders and lower commuter rail fares for riders who live in the city.
Others are pushing to make driving more expensive, to discourage rush-hour traffic and fund transit improvements. Tolls would encourage more people to use transit, lessening congestion on highways, said Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar and now a transportation policy specialist.
“If you increase the costs of driving, people drive less. If you increase the costs of subways, people use subways less,” Chase said.
Having a car in the Boston area is expensive, considering the costs associated with ownership. But once people have a car, they are more likely to use it. A recent survey by the advocacy group TransitCenter found that transit systems across the country are losing riders to driving, because of the low cost of auto loans.
Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the higher car ownership rates reflect a positive development: More low-income people are able to afford vehicles. But the government needs to make transit an irresistible option, she said.
“What we need to offer is transit so good that people with cars will use it,” Pollack said. “The future of transit is more people with cars using transit for more trips.”
The gas tax last went up in 2013, by 3 cents, and was on a regular schedule of automatic increases until a voter initiative in 2014 struck down that provision. And gasoline prices are down by nearly $1 a gallon since 2012.
When the state moved to electronic tolling in 2016, tolls at a few locations increased, but most stayed the same or went down. While Uber and Lyft have probably added to congestion in Boston, the 20-cents-per-ride fee imposed by the state on those rides is one of the smallest such fees in the country.
Baker supported repeal of the automatic gas-tax increases, and aides said he does not support increasing it today.
However, the governor — along with his peers in nearby states —is exploring an environmental measure to reduce greenhouse gases by assessing fees on fuel distribution to invest in cleaner transportation, which would likely increase the costs of driving by several dollars a month.
Improving transportation will probably require more money beyond fare increases, according to a recent study from the Boston business group A Better City. Its transportation director, Kathryn Carlson, said higher costs for drivers would have a dual effect: fixing highways and the transit system, while influencing people to drive less and take the T more.
“Behavior change probably means we have to incentivize things differently,” she said.