T board approves 6 percent fare hike
After weeks of public debate, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s governing board on Monday voted to increase fares by about 6 percent, while freezing rates for bus riders, seniors, and riders with disabilities.
The fare hike will go into effect July 1, the fourth increase since 2012. A subway ride will increase to $2.40 from $2.25, commuter rail trips will increase by as much as 75 cents, and monthly subway passes will cost an additional $5.50.
The board held bus fares at $1.70, rather than increasing the cost to a proposed $1.80, to shield lower-income riders, who are more likely to use buses. And, in a sign that board members have grown wary of relying on riders for more funding, they agreed the MBTA should not raise fares again for at least three years.
The five-member board voted 4 to 0 to raise fares, with its vice chair, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, abstaining. She criticized the fare hike as premature and said the transit authority should adopt several short-term measures to improve service before charging passengers more.
Riders are unimpressed by long-term planning studies or large projects that won’t bear fruit for years and simply want the bus to arrive on time and stations cleaned, she said.
“It’s not right, and we cannot continue to do this,” she said. “These projects just continue to float out there in the ether, and that is why the public is so angry.”
Despite Governor Charlie Baker’s insistence that the state should not seek other sources of revenue to finance the MBTA — such as boosting the gasoline tax or raising fees on ride-hail trips — board member Brian Lang suggested the MBTA set policies that would encourage the Legislature to do just that.
Ultimately, the board decided to take a less aggressive approach: drafting a letter to state leaders and seeking to testify at Legislative hearings about transportation funding. Still, it was a clear sign of frustration from a board appointed by Baker to grapple with fiscal and managerial issues in large part by reducing spending and funneling it toward repair work.
The vote to increase fares came after more than an hour of public testimony, during which Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu reiterated her stance that the MBTA should move toward lowering fares rather than raising them. State Representative Mike Connolly denounced the hike as “class warfare,” and other speakers argued it may worsen traffic on Boston’s congested roads.
“The MBTA has justified these fare hikes by arguing they are comparable to the regional rate of inflation,” said Parker Morse, a rider on the commuter rail’s Worcester Line. “That is the wrong comparison. Riders on the commuter rail are comparing the cost of commuting by rail to the cost of commuting by car. When fares for transit go up, the balance tips toward the car for more commuters.”
The MBTA had received public input on fares for weeks, with nearly 60 percent of comments arguing that service has not improved enough to justify fare hikes. After the board’s vote, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack asserted that higher fares will help improve the system.
“I am a regular rider, and I share the frustrations,” she said. “It’s important that the riders make this modest increase to make the kinds of investments that will improve service. We heard frustrations over fares, but what we really heard was frustration over service, and the only way we can make the service better is to have the resources to invest in the T.”
The authority had forecast the fare increase would boost revenue by about $32 million. But because bus prices and discounted rates were frozen, the figure will be closer to $29.5 million.
The board also urged the T to invest more money in improving the bus system as part of the annual budget process.
To make up the difference, board members indicated they may use money that would otherwise be designated for capital projects, such as repair and modernization work.
That is clear proof the T needs more funding, said James Aloisi, state transportation secretary in the Deval Patrick administration.
“When you have to make choices and you don’t have a strong hand to play with, something’s got to give,” he said. “So today a little bit of the capital had to give. They’ve done a really good job reining in costs. But there’s a limit to what you can do, and that’s what you’re seeing play out.”
The T also decided to make permanent a pilot program that it began last year, giving riders unlimited weekend access to the commuter rail for $10 and to make internal changes to boost the number of student and youth passes.
The board set a three-year pause before the next fare increase, as it did the last time it raised prices, in 2016. However, the board, which was appointed after the winter 2015 transit crisis, is due to be dissolved by mid-2020, and officials acknowledged a new board could rescind the freeze.