In transportation debate, don’t forget low-income fares
Lower prices would help address equity, public health
IT IS COMMON KNOWLEDGE to riders and elected officials alike that our public transit systems are in need of transformative change. But often lost in the conversation about fixing the MBTA and regional transit authorities is the burden of transit costs on people who already struggle to make ends meet. Our region has high poverty and inequality— 20 percent of Bostonians and more than 9 percent of those in the greater metro area have incomes at or below the poverty level. Reduced fares for riders with low incomes should be a priority for legislators and officials.
Low-income people and communities of color disproportionately depend on public transit and face disparities in transit access and affordability. About one-third of workers in Suffolk County who use public transportation earn below $25,000 per year or about 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a single person. Fare hikes have hit low-income riders hard—since 2000, cash subway fares have nearly doubled in real terms, from $1 (equivalent to $1.48 in 2019 dollars) to $2.90. In fact, the cost of riding the T has risen faster than the cost of driving over that time.
A reduced fare would make a concrete difference in the lives of people with the fewest resources. It would allow people to travel more affordably, not only to work, but to doctor’s appointments, their children’s schools, or to pursue their own education. In fact, a study conducted by researchers at MIT found that low-income people with access to a half-price fare took 30 percent more trips overall, and more trips to access healthcare and social services.
In December, the MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board discussed the adoption of a low-income fare, with the public and a majority of board members speaking in favor of the measure. But urgent action is needed to make it a reality. Susan Backstrom, a member of GreenRoots, asked in her testimony, “How long are the working poor going to have to wait for this to be implemented? People from Chelsea and East Boston who utilize [the MBTA] for all their transportation needs…we just need an affordable option. Please find a solution.”
Making low-income fares a reality will require bold leadership from officials concerned with transportation, equity, and public health. The MBTA will need a partner agency to verify eligibility for the program. The Department of Health and Human Services would be ideal since it already carries out means-testing for income-based programs such as MassHealth. MIT data showing increased visits to access healthcare and social services further demonstrate that the health and human services agency is a natural partner in this initiative.
The Legislature must also prioritize the needs of low-income transit users by funding the reduced fare program as transportation spending is hammered out over the coming months. It is critical that the necessary investments are made, both in low-income fares and in the frontline MBTA workforce. A low-income fare is only helpful if the system is functional. Restoring the reliability and core functions of the MBTA will require investing in many of the frontline maintenance and mechanic workers that have been wrongfully and frequently targeted by cuts and misguided privatization schemes in recent years.In a metro area increasingly challenged by high poverty rates and inequality, a reduced fare for those who need it is one essential step toward making sure that everyone—regardless of income—can get where they need to go.
Lee Matsueda is executive director of Community Labor United and Andrea Nyamekye is campaign and policy director of Neighbor to Neighbor.