MBTA is urged to shield bus riders, seniors, students from fare hikes
Bus riders, senior citizens, and students may yet see a reprieve from the MBTA fare hike, after members of the transit system’s board of directors asked it to consider keeping rates stable for those riders.
Monday’s discussion about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s proposed 6.3 percent fare increase also sparked sharp words from one director, Brian Lang, who said the state must consider other sources of revenue to invest in the T rather than repeatedly raising rates.
Relying on T riders to fund the system is “completely wrong-headed,” he said, because increasing the gasoline tax or the fees levied on ride-hail companies like Uber could help pay for improvements while encouraging the public to use the T more.
“We don’t operate in isolation,” Lang said. “We are never going to be able to have a world-class transportation system unless there’s some kind of central coordination, and unless our political leaders grow a little bit of courage.
“Because it does mean [there’s a need] to tax, to have fees. And it means that the money’s going to have to come from somewhere. . . . Not just the riders, the people who are dependent on riding every day.”
His perspective aligned somewhat with that of transit advocates who in recent weeks have said that MBTA fares should not go up unless the costs of driving do, as well, because a fare hike may discourage ridership and make Boston’s traffic worse.
But he was at odds with Governor Charlie Baker, who appointed Lang to the oversight board in 2015. Baker argues it makes sense for the MBTA to rely on regular fare increases to help fund the system because nonriders already help through a share of the state sales tax.
Baker’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, said Monday that she would help facilitate discussions between the board members and officials who oversee other parts of the transportation system. But some of the revenue sources that Lang mentioned, such as the gas tax and Uber fees, would require changes in state law by the Legislature.
The proposal would raise the price of a subway ride by 15 cents, a bus ride by 10 cents, and commuter rail trips by up to 75 cents. A monthly bus-and-subway pass would go up $5.50, and some commuter rail passes would increase by $25.
Lang stopped short of saying the MBTA should not raise fares at all, but asked staff to analyze the financial implications of not increasing rates for bus rides, or for seniors and students, who are already eligible for discounted rates. Buses have a higher rate of low-income riders than the subway and commuter rail.
Another board member, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, asked the T to analyze whether the authority could make some commuter rail rides cheaper, by making all stops in Zone 1 cost the same as in the lower-fare Zone 1A. Many riders feel transportation costs are becoming too high, she said.“What we consider a moderate increase actually has a massive impact on a lot of our riders. The cost of living in this area is skyrocketing,” Tibbits-Nutt said.
Board chairman Joseph Aiello also suggested the T, which recently implemented a discounted $10 all-weekend commuter rail pass, could look into creating a lower-cost version for riders closer to Boston.
Their requests come after the administration of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh last week asked the MBTA to consider keeping fares stable on bus-only passes or discounted passes for seniors, low-income young people, and riders with disabilities.
But they also come as the T works to finalize a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that relies in part on $32 million from a fare hike. Officials have also seen growth in other revenue sources, such as advertising and parking, though not at the rate they had hoped for a few years ago.
The T argues a fare hike will help improve service, because the money from the fares would help fund its growing operating budget, allowing it to put other money toward repairs and modernization work.
The MBTA says that its last fare hike, in 2016, helped fund projects like track work, rehabilitation on commuter rail coaches, and new systems to track bus locations.
But riders may look at the issue from the other direction: About 60 percent of public comments about the proposed fare hike have suggested that MBTA’s quality of services does not warrant a fare increase, according to the authority — a perspective that was echoed again on Monday.
“Performance has not met expectations, and much more must be done before we once again ask riders to bear the burden of a fare increase,” said Eric Cunningham of the advocacy group Transit Matters, which says the MBTA must find other ways to pay for improvement projects.