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Your MBTA bus ride may get a lot faster, but be prepared for fare inspections

The MBTA’s decision to move to an honor system for fares on buses and the Green Line is forcing the agency to make difficult choices about enforcement, including whether to use police to confront scofflaws.
The MBTA’s decision to move to an honor system for fares on buses and the Green Line is forcing the agency to make difficult choices about enforcement, including whether to use police to confront scofflaws.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File)

The MBTA’s decision to move to an honor system for fares on buses and the Green Line is forcing the agency to make difficult choices about enforcement, including whether to use police to confront scofflaws.

By 2021, the T will eliminate cash fares, requiring riders to scan a prepaid fare card or smartphone payment app at a fare reader when they board buses or trolleys above ground. Because riders will be able to board at rear doors as well, and drivers will no longer have to watch over fare collection, the agency will instead deploy fare inspectors to conduct spot checks to ensure everyone has paid.

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And that’s where it will get tricky. Will police carry out the inspections, or conductor-like personnel with enforcement powers? How big will the fines be? Will they be more like a parking ticket or will riders pay upfront? How strictly will the policy be enforced? And how will the T ensure minorities are not singled out?

“The biggest concern people have is an armed officer being the one enforcing these situations, not trusting them to de-escalate these situations,” said Lee Matsueda, political director of the advocacy group Alternatives for Community & Environment in Roxbury.

MBTA officials are planning to develop the fare enforcement policy over the coming months: determining who will conduct the inspections, what protocol to follow, and the amount of the fines. The challenge is to make enforcement serious enough to discourage free-riding but not overly harsh, especially because the bus system has a higher rate of low-income riders than the subway or commuter rail.

Another question is whether to expand enforcement to commuter rail, which is expected to go to an all-electronic payment system in 2021 where riders tap on and off as they board and leave trains. Currently on the commuter rail, conductors check tickets or collect payments after riders have boarded.

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MBTA officials promise to hold public forums as well as discussions with activists and other transit agencies that use the proof-of-payment system to establish best practices. Proof-of-payment systems are common in Europe and are also used on some US systems, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Many systems use non-police fare inspectors, but others rely on police, including Cleveland and Portland, Ore., where activists have challenged the inspections as unconstitutional.

“We’re not trying to put the cart before the horse,” said Laurel Paget-Seekins, the T’s director of fare policy. “We have some time to figure this out and figure out the policy for proof-of-payment. . . . It’s a big change for how we’re going to be operating in the future, so it’s worth taking the time.”

The subway system will still maintain fare gates, so riders boarding the Green Line at underground stations will continue to pay that way. Above-ground trolleys and buses will no longer accept cash payments; switching to a tap-in system, officials said, will allow riders to board at both the front and rear doors, which the T estimates will make bus trips 10 percent faster.

“In transit systems that have enacted it, the biggest positive is decreasing the amount of time to board the vehicle,” MBTA board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt said.

But, she warned, the T must ensure that inspections are fair.

“The last thing we want is conductors not checking tickets on the commuter rail because of crowding, but at the same time have young people being ticketed for not paying their fares on one of the other services,” she said. “I wholly understand the concerns — especially from communities of color.”

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Passengers boarded a Green Line train at Commonwealth Avenue and Harvard Street in Allston.
Passengers boarded a Green Line train at Commonwealth Avenue and Harvard Street in Allston.(Globe Staff/File)

The T’s new fare system is modeled largely off London’s, which also conducts spot inspections on buses. But even in that city, with its highly rated transit system, there are stories of Kafkaesque fare inspections gone awry. London also makes fare evasion a crime, so in addition to hefty fines, the guilty get hit with a criminal record.

And it’s not clear how Bostonians will respond to the prospect of spot inspections. On the commuter rail, where the T has encouraged riders to purchase tickets before boarding at major stations, a rider with a valid but illegible ticket was arrested in 2017 after officials asked him to get a new ticket printed for free and he refused.

The T is already missing out on some fares today, though it’s often not the riders’ fault. On the commuter rail, for example, conductors sometimes do not check tickets, usually because a train is too crowded to move down the aisle. Similarly, on the bus system, drivers on crowded or delayed trips may wave passengers on for free to speed up the trip. And when a fare gate is broken at a subway station, riders might pour through.

Some passengers do try to escape fares. MBTA Transit Police say they fined about 2,300 riders in 2018 for the violation. But unlike the future system, where practically any rider may be inspected, these passengers are usually caught in the act of skipping a fare.

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“If police observe a person going through a gate without paying, they will stop that individual,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

A first-time offense for fare evasion currently carries a $100 fine. A second offense costs $200, and subsequent violations have a $600 penalty. Activists say these fines are far too high for low-income riders.

“Those outrageous fare evasion fees have to be put down,” said Mela Miles, an organizer with the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition in Dorchester. “If I park my car out there and don’t go and pick it up . . . there’s no fee that goes to me that’s so exponentially outrageous as $100 for not having paid a parking meter fee.” (In Boston, a ticket for an expired meter carries a $40 fine.)

MBTA officials have indicated they’re interested in lowering fines before the new fare system is launched, but because those are set by state law, they must be adjusted by the Legislature. State Senator Joseph Boncore, who oversees transportation policy in the Senate, said he is open to making fines less punitive to low-income riders. Currently, non-payment of the fine can result in the state refusing to renew a driver’s license.

State law also allows Transit Police and some in-station personnel to inspect riders’ fares. Activists want police taken out of the equation, arguing that a skipped fare should not be a law enforcement matter that could escalate into a worse incident.

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Another worry: how inspectors will conduct the fare checks. Matsueda worries they will target riders in certain locations and wants the T policy to spell out ways to prevent inspections from becoming discriminatory. The T today does not have any written fare enforcement policy, according to the Transit Police, nor do officials track which stations or lines have the most frequent violations.

In other states, officials have taken measures to ensure their fare inspection policies are as free from bias as possible, by requiring inspectors to take anti-discrimination training or following set routes for inspections.

The national advocacy group TransitCenter also recommends that agencies equip inspectors with body cameras and collect data about citations.

Other agencies have lowered fines in response to such concerns. The Seattle-area transit system, for example, recently reduced fines from $124 to $50, and pledged to keep violators out of the legal system, “to minimize the chances of someone entering a cycle of debt and court interactions over a fare evasion ticket.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.