Low-income commuter rail fares are a no-brainer
It’s not a matter of finance; it’s a question of vision, will
LAST MONTH, members of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board took one last stand to advance a low-income fare program before their tenure over the agency expired. The board has valiantly prodded the agency to provide discounts to low-income riders for a number of years, but progress remained elusive. In a final vote, board members chose to instruct agency staff to prepare scenarios for a pilot program. Members reluctantly opted for this step out of fear that bolder action was inappropriate at time when they were handing over governance to some new entity that still hasn’t been determined yet.
The decision was flawed because it failed to acknowledge the varying levels of urgency and clear cost-benefit distinctions between commuter rail and bus and subway service. If we want a stronger, more equitable post-pandemic Commonwealth, discounting commuter rail fares for low-income residents is as close to a no-brainer as they come.
Control board Chair Joseph Aiello prefaced the discussion of a pilot program by noting how a “K-shaped” recovery is increasing inequality beyond already troublingly high pre-pandemic levels. This imbalance is most visible in hard-hit Gateway Cities. As of May, 183,000 Gateway City residents remained out of work. The vast majority (110,000) of these unemployed workers live in communities served by MBTA commuter rail.
Most of these residents are low-wage workers who could never afford monthly commuter rail passes, which cost almost $300 per month for close-in Gateway Cities such as Brockton and Lynn and nearly $400 per month for end-of-the-line communities such as Fitchburg and Worcester. At these prices, you could lease a luxury vehicle, but residents clearly don’t have the funds to make that substitution; one out five live in households without any car at all.
The difficulty Gateway City residents have making it to jobs that have slowly moved outward to suburban office and industrial parks is one of the major reasons why many of these communities struggle with troublingly low labor force participation rates. This “spatial mismatch” between where jobs are located and where residents live has been an especially large challenge in Fall River and New Bedford. The MBTA is spending over a billion dollars to add service to these communities. With the current fare structure, this extension is an inexplicable investment decision (unless the move is intended entirely as a strategy to generate gentrification).
There are two primary obstacles to implementing a discounted fare program: providing the extra capacity to serve additional riders and replacing lost revenue from current riders. These are significant hurdles for the agency to overcome for bus and subway service. However, these problems simply don’t apply to commuter rail.
At the board’s May meeting, MBTA staff indicated the commuter rail had sufficient capacity to carry more riders without incurring additional expenses. Lost revenue isn’t an issue either. Prior to the pandemic, the MBTA estimates just 2,000 low-income riders utilized commuter rail. A low-income fare would open the travel option to hundreds of thousands of low-income workers. Even if they paid heavily discounted fares, these new riders would provide a significant source of new revenue for the system.
In all of their analyses, the MBTA has never considered this significant net new revenue opportunity. Instead, they publish figures suggesting the system would lose a few million dollars in fare revenue based on current ridership. At the May presentation, the staff explained that it would be difficult to consider revenue collected from new riders because it would take years for low-income households to make residential moves to station areas. At a time when tens of thousands of Gateway City residents live within a short distance of dozens of mostly empty diesel trains passing through their communities each day, this analysis shows a painful lack of awareness of the economic and environmental justice challenges presented by the current fare structure.
Assuming the T’s next governing board gathers in the fall, the agency staff will likely present them with plans to establish a pilot program that would enroll a few thousand riders and run for less than a year. A limited test like this will tell us little about how residents will alter their job search in response to affordable commuter rail service. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents who suffered heavy losses in the pandemic and who remain at-risk in an unequal recovery will still be stuck watching trains go by that they cannot afford to ride.\This is not a matter of finances or technical feasibility. It simply comes down to vision and will. Achieving an equitable recovery will demand action from leaders who are in position to bring about the necessary change. The MBTA’s new board members should come to their first meeting prepared to push the agency away from a pilot and toward full implementation of a discounted commuter rail fare program.
Ben Forman is the research director of MassINC, the nonprofit research organization that is also the corporate parent of CommonWealth.