A new proposal to automatically enroll some college students in an MBTA pass program offers an intriguing approach to improving the region’s transit system. It’s an idea worth exploring with college leaders — and an example of the kind of unconventional thinking that the cash-strapped T must promote to close its chronic budget shortfalls.
The idea, unveiled by the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee, would offer students at Boston-area colleges a deal. They’d get 50 percent off T passes — potentially saving $35 a month. But to qualify, the student body would have to vote to automatically add the cost to the annual fees charged to all students at that campus. As a deal-sweetener, the T would add more late-night service options, responding to the common gripe that the T closes too early for clubgoers.
According to the committee’s analysis, the new revenues would more than offset the cost of the late-night service. Ordinary commuters may see an immediate benefit too: faster trips. That’s because, rightly or wrongly, students are perceived to account for most fare evasion on the Green Line, a problem that has led the T to stop opening back doors at above-ground stations. Keeping the doors shut prevents riders from sneaking aboard trolleys without paying, but also makes trips much slower. But if all students have a pass, fare evasion by students shouldn’t be such a concern, and the T could resume opening back doors.
Though several other cities have tried student-pass programs, trading lower fares for a bulk purchase would be an unusually bold departure for an agency less than 10 years removed from tokens. But if the plan worked, it’s not impossible to imagine striking similar deals with major employers like hospitals. Different? Yes. But the T should be open to creative solutions that help stabilize its finances.