Mayor asks MBTA to postpone fare hike in wake of Red Line derailment; T board says it’s too late
State transit officials rejected a demand by Mayor Martin J. Walsh Monday to put off next month’s MTBA fare hike until Red Line service returns to normal following last week’s derailment.
The call from Walsh and other leaders came as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority still had no answer to what caused a 50-year-old train car to jump the tracks outside the JFK/UMass Station on June 11. Officials also could not say when repairs would be completed on the delay-plagued line.
Walsh — who had previously supported the hike — took to Twitter and sent a top aide to a joint MBTA-MassDOT board meeting Monday to press for a delay until the “Red Line is fixed.” The Democrat later said that because Boston is “most impacted by the failures” at the T, the city should have a seat on its oversight board, a move that would require legislative action.
“The MBTA must act with urgency,” Walsh tweeted, “and it’s unfair to ask riders to pay more until the Red Line is fully operational.”
Mayor Joseph Sullivan of Braintree, who sits on the state Department of Transportation board, also questioned T officials about the possibility of delaying fare hikes, citing the frustration of South Shore commuters who rely on the Red Line to get into Boston.
But state and T officials showed little appetite for changing course three months after the T’s Fiscal & Management Control Board approved hikes to subway and commuter rail trips, the fourth increase since 2012. On July 1, the price of a one-way fare on the subway is scheduled to go up by 15 cents, monthly T passes will go up by $5.50, and fares for monthly commuter rail passes will rise by up to $27.75.
“The broader fare increase, I think, is too much of a blunt instrument to roll back at this point,” said Joseph Aiello, chairman of the T board.
Stephanie Pollack, the state’s secretary of transportation, said a fare hike freeze was “not the correct gesture” for frustrated riders, noting the $30 million the increase is expected to generate next fiscal year will help pay for maintenance costs.
“There is something that we should do once we get through the immediate crisis to indicate to our Red Line customers that we understand how frustrating it’s been,” she told reporters. “But delaying a fare increase for the entire system that’s been in the works for months is not the way to do that.”
Walsh’s criticisms marked a sudden escalation in his rhetoric over the transit system. He expressed frustration last week about the delays the derailment caused but largely refrained from attacking the agency. “We’re going to continue the work on the T and push the T . . . to make sure that the improvements happen,” he said Wednesday.
But Monday, he sent Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of the streets and transportation, to the board meeting to publicly request the delay. The call followed similar ones from Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has long opposed the hikes and has repeatedly said the T should lower — not raise — prices for riders.
“There is a level of empathy and sensitivity that I think we need to bring to this issue,” said Sullivan, the Braintree mayor, who didn’t personally call for a fare hike freeze but pressed the T on a response. “This past week was a very difficult one for residents of the South Shore. We need to be responsive to that.”
Pollack said officials have heard the idea of putting a City of Boston representative on the T’s governing board. The current five-member board, which lawmakers created following the 2015 winter storms that crippled the T, is slated to end in 2020.
T officials spent a large chunk of Monday’s meeting detailing their response to the derailment. The MBTA hired an outside consultant, LTK Engineering Services, to review derailments on the transit system going back to 2017, and officials said they expect the firm to produce a final report within 90 days.
Separately, Aiello said he wants to launch a systemwide review of the T’s safety practices and rail operations, with the hope of forming an expert panel to lead it as early as next week. The T is also conducting an audit of its entire Red Line fleet.
Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager, said the T is still investigating the derailment’s cause but said investigators had shifted focus to the train car itself. He said officials ruled out any track-related issues, after last week saying operator error wasn’t to blame, and that they had disassembled the train to send parts for testing.
The agency said the train traveled some 1,800 feet — more than one-third of a mile — with one of its cars off the rails when it derailed last week. One person suffered a minor injury but did not require hospitalization.
The train, which was built in 1969, was last inspected on May 3 as part of a regular round of maintenance testing, Poftak said.
He said he could not provide a “concrete timetable” of when repairs will be completed to signals and other severely damaged equipment. Service has since resumed on all tracks through the JFK/UMass Station, but officials have warned Red Line commuters to plan for at least an additional 20 minutes in their commute through Tuesday morning.
The incident came just three days after a Green Line trolley also jumped the tracks, injuring 10 people. The T later suspended the driver of that train after determining he was to blame for the accident.
Both are part of 13 “in-service” derailments the T said it’s had since June 2017, all of which are presumably part of the consultant’s review.
They include five derailments in both 2018 and this year.
Their causes have varied. Officials said weather — including snow, fallen tree branches, and a manhole dislodged by water — was behind three derailments in 2018, while in another February 2018 derailment on the Red Line, a broken bolt caused a train to jump the track. That November, a broken axle bearing was behind a commuter rail train derailing.
Human error was the cause of all three derailments in 2017, and it’s to blame in two so far this year.
Among the other three in 2019: A track problem caused a Green Line trolley to derail in February, and two others, including the Red Line incident, remain under investigation. Officials said they’re also still trying to determine the cause of an April 2 derailment on the commuter rail, but they’ve ruled out “human factors” and any track-related issues.