The MBTA’s years-long interest in establishing a discounted fare program for low-income riders remains bogged down in policy nuance. But some members of the transit agency’s governing board are calling for the transit agency to keep things simple and act quickly to implement the benefit.
Creating a discount for low-income riders would require a lot of work, such as partnering with municipalities or other state agencies to verify and distribute fare cards — efforts that are doable but complicated, officials told the board Monday.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said it’s unclear whether cities and towns are well-suited to handle the program, and the T would still need to determine which state agency to work with and how a partnership would work.
Board members, however, urged the T to simplify the process by offering the fares to riders who prove they are already eligible for other low-income benefits.
“Don’t make it much harder than that,” said Chrystal Kornegay, a member of the five-person board and a state housing official. “As long as you’re eligible for X, you’re eligible for Y.”
Other board members agreed with Kornegay. Pollack suggested other state agencies are “very willing to talk about helping us,” but details — such as making sure riders remain eligible over time — will require time and work.
“If it’s January 2020 and I am eligible for this and I get a pass for January, do we check again in February? Do we check again in a year?” Pollack said after the meeting. “It is not as simple as one time, showing up with a MassHealth card or EBT card.”
The T’s board has been calling for the transit agency to explore low-income fares since 2016 — two fare hikes ago. Pollack has also indicated her support. The plan long hinged on the introduction of a new fare technology system, but that project has been delayed.
Riders, meanwhile, have been calling for quicker implementation.
“I realize that studies are really important, but how long are the working poor going to have to wait for this to be implemented?” Susan Backstrom, a member of the Chelsea advocacy group GreenRoots, said at Monday’s meeting.
Laurel Paget-Seekins, an MBTA assistant general manager, estimated the reduced fares could cost the T between $32 million and $73 million in annual revenue, depending on how it is implemented. She said she would have more information on how a program might work in January or February. Pollack said the agency may want to ask cities or towns or the state Legislature to fund the costs.
An MIT study earlier this year found that riders who received lower fares took about 30 percent more trips. The T already offers reduced fares for seniors and people with disabilities, as well as low-income people ages 18-25.
Officials also discussed potential changes to commuter rail fares. One idea officials have been considering would be to lower fares for zones 1 and 2, to account for a big shift between Zone 1A fares, which cost $2.40, and Zone 1, which cost $6.50. Zone 2 fares cost $7. Lowering Zone 1 fares to $4.25 and Zone 2 to $6 would cost the T about $9 million but could boost ridership by about 200,000 a year.
Also Monday, T officials said they will incur $15 million in extra costs this fiscal year. That’s due to several initiatives that have popped up of late — including new staff to develop plans for electrifying and modernizing commuter rail, improving the bus network, and addressing problems recently unearthed by a report finding the agency has not properly prioritized safety. Officials say they expect increased collections in the state sales tax to cover most of those costs.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at email@example.com.