Fare debate: Give low-income riders a break

Means-tested fare would save eligible riders about $500 a year

EVERY DAY, hardworking Massachusetts residents face a difficult dilemma: pay for transportation to get to work or afford basic necessities. This is an unfair and unnecessary burden on those who contribute to the economic prosperity of the state.

On this International Workers Day, it’s time to take action and make public transportation affordable for our workers with a low-income fare at the MBTA. Unfortunately, Massachusetts has been trending in the opposite direction. For years, the cost of riding the MBTA has increased at a much faster rate than the cost of driving, and recent reports suggest that driving in Boston may actually be cheaper than taking public transit. The Massachusetts Legislature can reverse this trend by passing legislation that establishes a permanent low-income fare program and ensures funding for a low-income fare in the Commonwealth’s FY24 Budget.

Consider Yinchun Liang, a homecare worker who relies on the MBTA to travel from Charlestown to Chinatown every day for work, groceries, bilingual services, and community events. Despite working hard to support her family of three on a single income, Yinchun, like many other Massachusetts families, struggles to make ends meet due to the rising cost of living and stagnant wages. For families like Yinchun’s, who rely on public transit every day, affording the $90 monthly MBTA pass on top of other expenses can be overwhelming. A low-income fare is necessary to ease that burden and ensure that hardworking individuals like Yinchun can access the transportation they need to succeed.

Accessible and affordable transportation is crucial for ensuring equal access to opportunities and resources. Today, many individuals and families contribute a significant portion of their income to funding public transportation. While a rider among the top 20 percent of income earners in Massachusetts will spend less than 1 percent of their monthly income on a LinkPass, a rider with income at the federal poverty level will pay over eight times more of their monthly income toward the same service.

Meanwhile, essential workers, many of whom are women and people of color, rely heavily on the MBTA to meet their daily needs and access job opportunities. Recent data showing women and people of color make up a larger than ever share of riders underscores the importance of equitable and accessible transportation options. By providing affordable transportation, we can reduce the financial burden on vulnerable populations and improve access to essential services like healthcare, education, and employment.

According to MBTA findings, more than 60,000 commuters could benefit from a reduced-fare program for people making 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less. These are hardworking individuals – including our essential workers and workers of color – and families who simply want to get to work at a fair and affordable cost, and in a reasonable amount of time. Studies show that, when offered a reduced-fare option, low-income transit users not only take upwards of 30 percent more trips, but they take these trips to health care and social services. A reduced-fare program would save each low-income rider about $500 annually, for a total of more than $30 million put back into the pockets of low-income residents each year.

Low-income fare legislation has a history of strong support among voters and legislators in Massachusetts. Now, with Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed funding of $5 million to the MBTA to fund a pilot study of the best approach to rolling out low-income fares, the Massachusetts Legislature must pass it through the FY24 budget along with passing legislation to ensure that low-income fares become a permanent and essential part of our public transportation system.

By doing so, we can ensure that all workers can afford to get where they need to go without the worry of not being able to afford other life necessities. Let’s stand together for transit affordability and a future where hardworking individuals like Yinchun Liang can access the transportation they need to thrive.

Lydia Edwards is a state senator from East Boston.