It is long past the time to implement affordable public transit in Massachusetts. Community organizations, labor leaders, employers, riders and workers agree that transit affordability is key to moving us toward a robust recovery. But under the direction of the Baker/Polito administration, the MBTA has dragged its feet. That is why we are looking to Beacon Hill to make sure low-income fares become a reality soon, and guarantee the progressive revenue needed to support them.
Our representatives and senators must pass H. 3526, which would direct the MBTA to provide free or discounted transit fares to qualifying riders on all modes of transportation operated by the authority, in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, it would open the way for the commonwealth’s Regional Transportation Authorities to implement low-income fare programs or, if more cost-effective, fare-free systems.
This bill responds to longstanding calls from low-income riders, who struggle to get to and from their jobs, school and other destinations because of the cost. MBTA fares have just about doubled since 2000, significantly driving up the cost of riding transit for the poor and working class. A reduced fare will allow low-income people to use transit more often while avoiding painful trade-offs between mobility and other urgent needs, like groceries. In addition, because poverty rates are higher than the state average (11.1%, according to 2019 estimates) in environmental justice communities like Roxbury (33.9%), Dorchester (23.9%) and Chelsea (19.5%), low-income fares would increase equity in Massachusetts, while reducing traffic and increasing opportunities for economic growth in environmental justice communities.
Without legislative action, low-income riders throughout the commonwealth will continue to face barriers to mobility. Under the direction of the Baker/Polito administration, the MBTA has refused to lower the cost of riding for those in need — despite calls from community organizations, Boston Mayoral candidates and its governing board.
Our RTAs also lack a clear path to affordability. While Worcester RTA riders recently won a temporary extension of fare free policies — and other RTAs are piloting fare free routes or schedules — there is no systematic approach to equitable fare policy for RTAs. H.3526 fills that need by promising affordability programs that are permanent, easily accessible, and are valid on all routes and modes for low-income riders.
We know there is support in the Statehouse to pass this legislation. Just last year, the legislature approved language that would have both required low-income fare programs and provided the means to fund them (with a per-ride public transit access fee on rideshare companies). But the Baker/Polito administration vetoed the affordability measures, leaving low-income riders in the lurch in the middle of the pandemic.
This bill will give riders the lift they need. The legislature should pass it promptly. The legislature — and voters alike — should fund these and other needed programs by voting to establish new, progressive sources of revenue to fund public goods, including public transit. In June, the legislature took the critical step of voting to advance the popular Fair Share Amendment to the 2022 ballot. In the meantime, the legislature can take immediate measures to restore corporate income tax to its pre-2009 level of 9.5% and align Massachusetts tax treatment of offshored income with the federal tax code.
Without immediate action, Massachusetts will continue to fall behind the many other transit authorities across the country that have prioritized affordability. This is too important for the future of our commonwealth to leave in the hands of the Baker/Polito Administration. Instead, our senators and representatives should act now to make sure the needs of all riders are served.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt is executive director of the 128 Business Council and former vice chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board; Jen Benson is president of the Alliance for Business Leadership; Jim Evers is president/business agent at Boston Carmen's Union, Local 589.