One of the biggest obstacles to getting ahead can be the price of getting around. Compared with Massachusetts’ middle-class and affluent residents, low-income earners burn a disproportionately large part of their wages on everyday travel — from going to work or school, to visiting family and friends, to keeping medical appointments. For someone making anywhere near the state’s minimum wage of $10 an hour, a $75 monthly MBTA bus and subway pass is a major expense. Riding commuter rail, at up to $362 a month, can swallow a week’s take-home pay.
The public transportation affordability gap has grown wider as rising housing prices in Boston and its suburbs have forced more people to live farther from workplaces. There’s a name for the phenomenon: “extreme commuting.”
Longer commutes limit where people can afford to look for employment. What’s the point of changing jobs for a pay raise if it’s mostly consumed by unpaid hours spent sitting on a train? Commuting isn’t just an aggravation, it can crush opportunity, trapping people in a dispiriting poverty loop. Imagine the difference it could make in the lives of low-income earners if their commuting bills were cut. By a lot. It also could boost the state’s economy by encouraging upward mobility.
On Monday the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s fiscal control board is poised to vote on raising prices. That, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also give income-based fare discounts serious consideration. It would undoubtedly be difficult to pull off, but by lowering bus, subway, and train fares for people who earn below federal poverty levels, the region could become a leader in easing what a report from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program called “the cost burden of commuting.”
The MBTA, like most regional transit systems, didn’t design its overall fare structure around how much a rider can reasonably afford. There are reduced fares for seniors, students, and the disabled, but the majority of customers pay the same admission fee. It doesn’t matter whether they’re going to corporate headquarters or going to clean the home of someone who works at corporate headquarters.
While recognizing the complications involved in slashing fares based on income, Monica Tibbits-Nutt and Brian Lang, members of the MBTA’s fiscal control board, are open to the possibility. “We’re talking about a service for the public,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “The cheaper we can make it for some people, the more equitable public transit is going to be.”
That was the thinking in another pricey city, Seattle, which in 2015 introduced an income-based fare system for public buses, ferries, and trains. ”We found ourselves having to raise fares multiple times, and we became increasingly concerned about affordability,” said Rochelle Ogershok, a spokeswoman for the King County Department of Transportation. Under a program called ORCA Lift, those who qualify receive a discount of about 50 percent off peak fares. “Our region is not cheap. People do have to live further out from their jobs,” Ogershok said. “This makes a meaningful difference in their lives.”
The idea of less expensive public transportation for a significant swath of riders presents systemic, logistical, and financial challenges that demand the type of innovation Boston has become known for in technology and life sciences. For starters, you need rock-solid income verification to determine eligibility and prevent fraud. In Seattle, the transportation department decided against creating its own income database, an expensive, time-devouring prospect. Instead, it reached out to agencies and places where low-income residents already receive income-contingent services, including health clinics, food banks, and other nonprofits. “Why not use the resources that people of lower incomes already tap into?” Ogershok said.
By year’s end, more than 22,600 people had registered for ORCA Lift, and they used the passes 2.6 million times. The city hopes to eventually sign up as many as 100,000 riders. Boston might be able to build a verification model similar to Seattle’s by working with social service providers, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, and MassHealth, the state insurance program for low-income residents. Or someone might come with a better idea — the income-verification version of Uber.
Then there is the expense. More precisely, the problem of offsetting it. The MBTA would be reluctant to offer a new program that reduces revenue at a time the agency is desperate to generate more dollars. But an income-based Charlie Card structure wouldn’t necessarily mean a drop in revenue. It could function in two directions — discounting fares for lower-income riders while raising them for those above a certain income level. Given the existing spotty service, a proposal like that would provoke screaming protests. You want me to pay more for this? I get it. But low-income riders aren’t to blame for broken-down trains.
Like the fiscal board’s Tibbits-Nutt and Lang, Massachusetts Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack is interested in means-based fares. That doesn’t mean they’re on her priority list. During a recent visit to the Globe, Pollack said figuring out who qualified for bargain rates would be daunting. Seattle’s transportation system is run by King County, so there’s a direct link between it and the county agencies that assist low-income residents — agencies that know who’s eligible for discounts. The MBTA, by contrast, is a stand-alone operation. “The analogy to Seattle is imperfect,” Pollack said.
She’s right, but when it comes to public transportation in the Boston region, no one expects anything approaching perfection. Most of us would settle for measurable progress, and progressive thinking — the kind Pollack embraced last year in an interview with the Globe’s Shirley Leung. She said it would make sense to raise fares for riders who can afford higher prices and cut them for those who could use a break. Prices across the board have been “artificially” depressed, Pollack said, “because we are trying to be socially equitable.”
Advancing social equality on the T might also yield benefits that can’t be accounted for on a budget ledger. Money a low-wage rider doesn’t spend on commuting could build a household emergency fund, finance a modest home improvement project, pay for an occasional night out, or be used to chip away at a high-interest credit card balance. It’s time we start thinking of public transportation like an actual public service. Doesn’t society have an obligation to help people really go somewhere?Mark Pothier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @markpothier.