As T board nears its end, consensus proving elusive

Finding common ground on fare issues is difficult

AFTER NEARLY six years, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is coming to an end.

Two meetings are scheduled for June, and then the board will shut down. Some sort of replacement board is likely to emerge over the next month on Beacon Hill, possibly with some of the current members, but there are no guarantees.

The control board came into existence in July 2015, following a winter that knocked the transit authority on its back. The board has followed its own path – not as passive as the much larger MassDOT board but not domineering, either. The panel in many respects plays the role of a sounding board. The five members, all selected by Gov. Charlie Baker, have succeeded in drawing attention to the MBTA’s many challenges and allowed the public and advocacy groups to voice their concerns.  

Two big issues have emerged. The first has to do with the level of oversight. The control board initially met every week and that felt right as there was so much to do. But a safety review committee appointed in the wake of a Red Line derailment at the JFK/UMass Station pointed out in December 2019 that the control board’s meeting schedule was getting out of hand; the staff was spending too much time getting ready for meetings and not enough time doing their jobs. So the board scaled back to two meetings a month, although the gatherings can still last a long time. (Monday’s meeting ran more than four hours.)

The other big issue is consensus. The most remarkable thing about the board has been its ability to hash issues out without getting into messy policy fights among its members or with T staff. But lately, perhaps because the board’s end is in sight, it’s been getting more and more difficult to find common ground on certain issues.

On fares, for example, the T for years has hewed to the philosophy put forward by former transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack and enshrined in a 2017 state law that the price of a ride should go up by a moderate amount at regular intervals. The law limits fare increases to no more than 7 percent every two years. The last increase was in 2019; the law would allow another increase this summer, but the board shows no inclination to do that.

Indeed, some board members want to move in the opposite direction. Amid calls from advocates and some Beacon Hill lawmakers for doing away with bus fares entirely, the control board is putting pressure on T staff to come up with a way to implement means-tested fares – fares based on the income level of the rider. 

Gov. Charlie Baker in January vetoed a proposal for means-tested fares because there was no “financially sustainable plan in place to replace the lost revenue.” But at a meeting on Monday two members of the board expressed frustration at the lack of action on means-tested fares on Beacon Hill. They suggested the T should use its own funds to launch a means-tested-fare pilot next year and use the success of the pilot to leverage funding from the Legislature for a permanent program. There was strong pushback on that idea from another member of the board. 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

A similar impasse has emerged on fare evasion. The T wants fines for fare evasion to be high enough to serve as a deterrent, but board members seem reluctant to assess fines higher than $10 for initial offenses. 

Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board and its leading proponent of consensus, put off action on both means-tested fares and fines for fare evasion until next month. He has two meetings left to find some common ground. Time is running short.