Raise MBTA Service Quality, Revenue & Ridership, not fares

The MBTA Fiscal & Management Control Board has proposed increasing fares. Two members argued for special low-income fares. The concept of free/discounted fares for low-income riders sounds good but there are very serious risks in creating a two-tier transit system by raising fees for everyone else. As noted by former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, creating a non-egalitarian system goes against our values and is counterproductive because:

  1. Means testing makes fare increases seem more palatable by removing the most common objection (impacts to poor people), thus removing a check on rapidly rising fees.
  2. A two-tier fare system reinforces the idea of transit as a welfare program for poor people; it creates an "us versus them" mentality which amplifies false stereotypes about "lazy, selfish, greedy" poor people.
  3. Many riders have options. Without a similar increase in the cost of driving cars or using taxis, people who have other options will choose to drive or take a taxi, car service or private transit (such as Bridj). The result is a death spiral of lower ridership and higher fares, until the system collapses.
  4. Transit does not operate in a vacuum. As the costs of housing, food, daycare and other necessities continue to rise, people are being forced to move far outside the city where transit access is poor. Once you have access to a car, it is a sunk cost: in other words, you have already paid most of the costs (purchase, insurance, registration, parking). So you’ll be likely to drive it even when you could use transit (ex. grocery shopping) because each trip is basically free. The cost of the gas required to drive to a place with free or cheap parking is far less than a round-trip bus fare.
  5. With fewer T riders and more cars on our streets, traffic congestion worsens, impacting bus travel times and reliability of connections, and raising operating costs (paying a driver to sit in traffic) far more than a fare increase could expect to bring in.

When looking at high-cost services, it is much more sensible to figure out why services are expensive and/or attract low ridership. Many routes do not serve their users and communities well. Service quality improvements such as on-time performance, coordinated connections, longer service hours and higher frequency would go a long way toward increasing ridership and revenue, along with outreach and marketing of these improvements.

It is critical that, rather than increasing fares, we redesign the fare structure and policy to make our services easy to use, offer an unlimited 2-hour transfer to permit trips requiring more than one connection, integrate and adjust Commuter Rail fares (for example, charging the subway fare at inner stations like Hyde Park & Lynn would relieve pressure on expensive, overcrowded bus lines. Implementing a system of off-board fare payment (pay before boarding) would dramatically reduce bus dwell times and reduce operating costs.

Passengers line up to board Route 42 at Dudley Station, increasing operating costs.

Passengers line up to board Route 42 at Dudley Station, increasing operating costs.

Finally, it is unacceptable to ask public transportation users — those who are doing their part to achieve the MassDOT mode shift and greenhouse gas reduction goals, as well as the Vision Zero initiative — to pay higher fees without real service improvements that enhance their quality of life and increase opportunities. Rather than blanket fee increases, the fare structure and policy needs to be rationalized so that the diverse mix of services works efficiently and effectively and does not place add a barrier or disincentive to transit use.

While a fare increase might optimistically raise $23 million, it would not come close to addressing the MBTA budget deficit for FY2017 (currently cited at $242 million), and would pale in comparison to the improvement recommended above. We should also point out that while fares should be collected on all modes, some level of fare evasion is normal for transit services and efforts to collect every last fare experience diminishing returns. Similarly, as the Frontier Group and T4MA point out, cutting transit service doesn't save as much as the FMCB suggests.

If fares do increase along with the improvements recommended above, we would support either a state-subsidized income-based refundable tax credit or distributing free/discounted passes through social service agencies (such as WIC and MassHealth) to offset the burden somewhat. Revenue should not come from the T budget, however, and MassDOT should stay out of the business of administration. While the maximum allowable fare increase is 5 percent at this time, keep in mind that wages are declining, inflation is currently near zero percent, and Governor Baker promised that neither taxes nor fees would rise under his administration.