For Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management Control Board, making public transit more affordable is personal.
“I grew up incredibly poor," she said. "I know what it's like to not be able to afford even $1.50 for something. I lived that experience, and I know how hard that can be."
It's those life experiences what drive Tibbits-Nutt to keep pushing for the MBTA to adopt what’s known as a means-tested fare system, or basing fares on riders' incomes. She points to a 2019 MIT study in which a group of low-income people who were offered a 50% fare discount on the T increased their ridership by over 30%.
Tibbits-Nutt began campaigning several years ago for the T to conduct a pilot program to test the results on a wider scale, but it never happened.
“I think it kind of speaks to the weird leadership structure here in Massachusetts that we just weren't able to get it through," she said. "Because you not only need the support of the board of the T, but you also need the MASSDOT’s support, you need the secretary and you need the GM. We've just never gotten those stars to align at the same time.”
The Massachusetts Legislature included a means tested fare pilot study in its transportation bill, but that part of the bill was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker in January. Tibbits-Nutt said the MBTA has already reduced fares for young people and seniors, so reducing fares for low-income riders makes sense.
The stars may be aligning now, as the T's fiscal control board grapples with lowering fines for fare evaders. The MBTA is proposing to cut the current fines in half, from $100 to $50, for a first offense.
In public comments to the T, several people were concerned that even that amount would disproportionately affect low-income riders and riders of color. MBTA Board member Brian Lang agreed.
"I think it's a safe assumption to say that the majority of folks who are evading fares are doing that because they don't have much money," Lang argued at a recent board meeting. "They can't afford it."
Lang said that it makes no sense to charge high fines when people can't even afford the fares. He also suggested lowering fares would lower the incentive to evade them.
The popular movement to make public transit free for everyone is also putting pressure the T to come up with income-based fares.
As Board Chair Joe Aiello warned, “If we don't make progress developing a real plan for means-tested fares, we may get run over by the blunt instrument of free fare.”
Not only would making all transit free cost the MBTA more in lost revenue, Aiello said, but it wouldn’t target the riders who need the financial help the most.