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Opinion | Steve Poftak

The fare increase is a fair way to improve the MBTA

(John Blanding/globe staff)

A fare increase, including the modest one now being proposed, is never an easy or popular decision, but it will enable the MBTA to continue building on its progress made over the last four years to improve reliability for customers.

As a regular T rider, I understand the pace of change is not fast enough, especially when riders at times experience unreliable service. As permitted by statute, the MBTA last raised fares in 2016, and since then we’ve improved how the MBTA is both managed and how it performs, and our goal is to keep improving the customer experience. This increase in fares by a systemwide average of 6.3 percent is needed to continue the progress toward a better transit future.

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The T continues to work hard to make the most effective use of taxpayer dollars to support riders. In fiscal year 2016, the agency’s structural deficit of $170 million was projected to surpass $400 million if left unchecked. Instead, aggressive cost controls and a vigorous program to generate revenue from sources other than fares resulted in a balanced budget for fiscal year 2018, the first in a decade.

Funds that used to cover operating expenses — including some of the money from the last fare increase — now go toward repairs and upgrades, and help fund the MBTA’s five-year, $8 billion investment plan to make systemic improvements.

Can the T do more to manage expenses? Yes — and we will. But we’re not cutting just to balance the budget — the savings are being reinvested.

In the short term, fiscal discipline has allowed the T to initiate a number of customer-focused investments. These include the purchase of new RIDE vehicles, used to transport individuals with disabilities under the T’s paratransit service, and upgrading nearly half of the bus fleet. We launched two new ferries within the past two years and started the replacement of the entire Orange Line fleet, with new Red Line cars to follow.

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We’re also investing in service. The MBTA has added late-night and early-morning bus service and has extended the Silver Line to Chelsea. And we’ve launched dedicated bus lanes in collaboration with Boston, Everett, Cambridge, Watertown, and Arlington — with plans to expand this successful effort to improve service for bus riders. Commuter rail is operating 10,000 more scheduled trips than it did in 2014, and on-time performance has improved.

Investments also extend to our workforce. We’re in the process of hiring additional bus operators to increase the reliability of our bus network. Also, because the Carmen’s Union agreed to defer a wage increase several years ago, the T now needs to fund those increases this year and beyond.

While riders most directly benefit from these and other improvements, everyone in the region gains from improved public transit. A better MBTA reduces congestion and greenhouse gases by taking cars off clogged roads. A better MBTA helps sustain the regional economy. A better MBTA supports strong communities across Massachusetts.

In fact, taxpayers across the state — many of whom don’t regularly use the T — pay more than $1 billion yearly, which is almost twice what comes from fares, to help cover operating costs. Indeed, according to a recent study, residents across Massachusetts, through sales and other taxes, spend more per capita to support public transit than any other state.

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State taxpayer contributions and local assessments increase 2 to 3 percent each year. And highway users — not taxpayers — pay for almost all of MassDOT’s highway operating costs. It is therefore both fair and reasonable to ask MBTA riders to pay their share of a modest increase aligned with inflation.

Before the 2016 fare increase, money from fare hikes went only to cover uncontrolled increases in expenses, not to improve service. Now, because of progress to transform the MBTA, additional revenue from riders — as well as from taxpayers — can be invested in both assets and service improvements.

We know that any fare increase can create challenges, especially for our most vulnerable riders, which is why the current proposal keeps the cash fare for buses flat and preserves special programs that offer discounted fares.

Modestly raising fares is part of the T’s strategy to invest in our workforce and our assets, and to improve service, with the goal of accelerating the pace of change to finally produce the system that T riders — and the taxpayers of the Commonwealth — need and deserve.


Steve Poftak is general manager of the MBTA.