The MBTA is once again asking riders to pay more, and as recent public meetings have shown, many riders are not happy about it.
In what would be the first fare hike in three years, the state department of transportation has proposed a 6.3 percent hike across all modes of transit. If approved by the MBTA’s fiscal control board, the new fares would take effect July 1. There would be a dime increase in bus fares — from $1.70 to $1.80 — a 15 cent increase for subways and trolleys — from $2.25 to $2.40 — and commuter rail riders could pay up to $25 more per month. In 2016, the department enacted a 9 percent increase. The legislature allows the MBTA to raise fares, but not by more than 7 percent every two years.
Public meetings hosted by the MBTA have featured many variations of one complaint about the fare hike proposal:
“I think a lot of people are feeling that they're paying more and just getting less,” said Mary Kate Feeney of Framingham.
Feeney isn’t wrong when she says she doesn't expect service to improve if she pays more. UCLA transportation researcher Brian Taylor said fare increases don’t usually fund service improvements.
“It's not [about] raising prices to provide better service — that almost never happens," Taylor said. "The thing that motivates a fare increase is usually an impending financial crisis.”
The financial “crisis” in this case is the T's budget, though Taylor may not be entirely correct about riders not seeing better service. The new fares would bring in an extra $32 million next fiscal year. That money would help reduce the operating deficit, which could indirectly allow the T to spend more on capital improvements like new cars and power systems — things that really do improve service.
And despite riders' gripes, the MBTA's public meetings have also shown that riders don’t think the 6.3 percent increase over 3 years is exorbitant. They admit it pretty much mirrors inflation. But like Feeney, many don't like the idea of paying more for less.
Eagan Millard of Weymouth made that point this week at a fare hearing in Boston.
”I realize the T needs a lot of money to be brought back to life after much neglect, but a fare increase would place the burden of undoing that neglect squarely on the backs of the people who suffered most because of it," he said. "We should reward people who choose sustainable modes of transit; instead we punish them.”
Millard and others suggest sources of public transit funding should include a higher gas tax, more tolls, congestion pricing and a tax on carbon-based fuels.
It costs just over $2 billion a year to run the MBTA. The fares collected total about $670 million. So who pays the rest? The answer, it turns out, is anyone who buys anything in Massachusetts.
Since 2000 a portion of the state sales tax has been designated for the MBTA — and in this fiscal year that adds more than $1 billion. The argument to support this tactic is even if you don’t use the T, the entire state benefits economically from having public transit. Without it, the logic continues, the roads would be more congested than they are now and the air would be dirtier. But that's been a tough sell for taxpayers living in the western part of the state.
Another concern often raised at the public meetings is discounts for those most dependent on public transportation. Though there are senior and student discounts for the T, some riders say there should be a lower fare for people with lower incomes who have no alternative to public transportation.
Others say they think students should ride for free, or universities should fund free transit for their students. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has taken that one step further, arguing that everyone should ride for free.
Wu says mass transit should be like public education — accessible and affordable for everyone. Raising fares would mean fewer people will ride the T, she argues, and those who can will take their cars, adding to traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Wu’s idea may be an admirable goal, but no one has come up with a viable way to replace all that fare revenue, except with more taxes, which is not a popular option with lawmakers.
Wu is right that increasing fares drives down ridership. The T estimates that this fare increase may result in 1.3 percent fewer passengers. UCLA's Brian Taylor said that initially may be true, but riders could be lured back by improving service. Taylor said his research shows ridership will grow more if service quality is improved than if fares were lowered or eliminated.
Then there is the issue of fairness when it comes to fare collection. As many passengers have observed, not everyone who uses the T pays. There are fare evaders, but there are also broken ticket machines and conductors who don't check tickets. The MBTA expects its new automated fare collection system will capture more of those lost fares when it's implemented in the next two years. The new system will also allow the T to more easily adjust fares to make them more equitable.
MBTA General Manager Stephen Poftak calls this 6.3 percent fare increase a modest one. The $32 million the increase would raise is a small portion of the $2 billion needed every year, and a lot more money will be needed to make the improvements riders want to see. That will have to come from Beacon Hill. Legislators and Gov. Baker must come up with a plan to raise that money.