Did a 2013 law impose a 5% or a 10% cap?
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
ACTIVISTS AND KEY SENATORS say a 2013 tax law capped fare hikes at the MBTA at 5 percent every two years, while a key House lawmaker and the Baker administration are pointing to the same law and saying it clearly caps fare hikes at 10 percent every two years.
The MBTA could next implement fare hikes July 1, 2016 at the earliest and, while there have been discussions about fare hikes at the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, there is no proposal, according to a T spokesman.
At stake for riders is potentially significant variation in how much they will see fares increase. For the most expensive commuter rail pass, the difference per month between 5 percent and 10 percent is $18. For those with a subway pass the difference is $3.75 per month, and the cap limits the overall fare increase, so on certain modes of transit the percentage increase could be greater than on others.
“The Senate’s position was clear from the beginning,” said Sen. Tom McGee, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman. “We came up with the position that 5 percent over two years was the appropriate fare increase and that the cap made sense,” he said.
“In my view the language we passed in 2013 does permit as much as a 10 percent increase consisting of 5 percent year one, 5 percent year two,” Rep. Bill Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, told the News Service.
Straus and McGee both served on the closed-door conference committee that reconciled House and Senate versions of the bill, where a Senate provision establishing a cap on fare hikes was altered. Straus said he didn’t know whether McGee specifically agreed to the slight but potentially significant change, which he described as an attempt at clarification, saying it “implements what was a Senate initiative.”
Katherine Clark, who was then a senator and is now a congresswoman, sponsored the fare-hike-cap amendment, which was not addressed on the House side, Straus confirmed. The conference committee inserted the word annual into a provision that limited fare increases to “intervals of less than 24 months or at a rate greater than 5 per cent,” an alteration that even opponents of the 10-percent cap acknowledge can be interpreted to limit fare hikes to 10 percent every two years.
The point of the provision was to replace the ad hoc system of fare hikes with a new system where increases would be regular and moderate.
“Quite simply this amendment ensures that fare increases, if they are to occur, are reasonable and fairly spaced,” Clark said during a Saturday April 2013 floor debate on the Senate bill. “The fares could only be increased under this amendment every two years and not more than 5 percent at any time.”
Rafael Mares, vice president and director of Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, said 10 percent raises every two years would defeat the purpose of a fare cap because he said the increases would not be predictable or small.
Citing the passage of time, McGee said he couldn’t say whether he had agreed to the change or whether he even knew about it.
“It’s two years ago, but my position at the time and my position today is that the right approach was 5 percent cap over a two-year period,” McGee said. Noting a separate provision of the bill that refers to a 5 percent cap, McGee said there would be a discussion about how to “clarify” the legislation.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who co-sponsored Clark’s amendment, agreed with McGee that “it capped fare increases at 5 percent every 24 months.”
“When we voted on the final bill, I think that folks in the Senate believed what we were passing and still believed what we passed was 5 percent,” Chang-Diaz said.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has said the cap is 10 percent every two years. “What we have is the legislative language,” said Pollack.
Straus said where there is ambiguity “you rely on the words themselves,” and he said, “I don’t remember after the conference report was issued that this caused any confusion for 200 legislators.”
Mares said the inclusion of the word “annual” altered the meaning of the provision so that if read on its own it can be reasonably interpreted to limit fare increases to 10 percent every two years.