Frustrated MBTA board OKs fare hike

Members say many functions broken at transit authority

THE MBTA OVERSIGHT BOARD approved a slightly trimmed-down fare increase on Monday at a meeting where it became clear that a majority of the five members are dissatisfied with the transit authority’s progress in a number of areas and at odds with Gov. Charlie Baker on the need for new, broader transportation revenue initiatives.

Nearing the end of its fourth year in existence, the Fiscal and Management Control Board seems more divided than ever before. At Monday’s meeting, members alternated between anger and frustration as they debated a $32 million fare increase that has been widely panned as counterproductive (nearly 30 people testified against the fare increase during the public comment period) and a budget for fiscal 2020 that seems full of holes.

The MBTA had proposed a 6.3 percent average fare increase starting July 1, but the control board, trying to ease the impact on low-income riders, voted 4-0 (with Brian Shortsleeve abstaining) to jettison small increases planned for bus fares and special fares paid by seniors, students, youths, and the disabled.

The board then discussed the possibility of barring another fare hike until Beacon Hill approves at least two of three proposals to boost transportation revenues (a minimum 10 percent fee for ride-hailing apps, an increase in the gas tax, and congestion pricing) and steers a significant portion of the revenue to the T. That measure was withdrawn when it became clear only two members supported it, but the board did vote 4-1 (with Shortsleeve voting no) not to increase fares again for three years. State law allows the T to increase fares every two years.

“We keep talking about improving service, but we’re just not seeing it,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who pushed for the three-year hiatus in fare proposals. “I’m trying to buy staff time to justify another fare increase and I think they need three years.”

The upshot of all the debate was approval, on a 4-0 vote, of a 5.8 percent average fare increase applying to subway, commuter rail, ferry, and paratransit fares. A one-way subway fare will go up 15 cents to $2.40; a one-way zone 8 commuter rail fare (Worcester falls in that zone) will rise 75 cents to $12.50; and the monthly Link Pass, which provides unlimited bus and subway service, will rise $5.50 to $90. (For more information on specific fare changes, click here.) The whole package will raise $29.5 million instead of the $32 million originally proposed.

Tibbits-Nutt, who abstained on the final fare increase vote, said she wasn’t swayed by comparisons to other peer transit agencies showing T fares among the lowest in the nation. “They’re selling a completely different product,” she said of the other transit systems, noting their customers are paying for a system that works.

The fare proposal was part of a broader discussion about the T’s operating budget for fiscal 2020 and a simmering debate that erupted last week about whether the state should raise additional transportation revenues and funnel a big chunk of them to the MBTA.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the board, began the discussion by outlining a series of MBTA initiatives that have improved service on the commuter rail system and the Silver Line, and will soon dramatically improve service on the Red and Orange Lines. He also noted the Green Line extension into Medford and Somerville, a new automated fare collection system, and improved bus service are in the works.

“The T is doing many things better than it was four years ago,” Aiello said. “We are heading in the right direction.”

He also said the T is more fiscally responsible. “The T is no longer a sinkhole of dollars. The T is an accountable organization,” he said.

But as the budget debate progressed, other members of the control board expressed frustration at the slow pace of improvement and the absence of progress in some areas.

For example, the T brought in $79 million in revenue from real estate, advertising, and parking in fiscal 2018 and expected to increase that to $105 million in the current fiscal year. Instead, the T is now projecting it will bring in only $83 million this year. Nevertheless, the transit authority is estimating these own-source revenues will grow to $103 million in fiscal 2020, a projection that several members of the control board doubted would materialize.

Shortsleeve took one look at a one-page presentation on the T’s paratransit service and concluded the system needs to be overhauled. T officials said the traditional paratransit service costs $55.60 for what Shortsleeve said typically works out to an eight-mile ride, and that comes after three years of efforts to revamp the paratransit delivery system and make it more cost-effective.

“This program is entirely broken,” Shortsleeve said. “It needs to be entirely scrapped and rebuilt.”

The T’s hiring numbers were also disappointing. The employee headcount in operations at the T has fallen from 3,436 in fiscal 2016 to 3,126 in the current fiscal year, not including bus drivers. The officials said hiring is keeping pace with attrition but not keeping up with the goals of the transit authority. Recognizing the T is likely to fall behind again in fiscal 2020, T officials are asking permission to put off 25 to 35 hires until fiscal 2021 and reallocate the money that would be saved.

Tibbits-Nutt said the hiring numbers signaled to her that the T doesn’t have enough people and money to deliver its basic standard service. “That is why the service is degrading,” she said of the lackluster hiring numbers.

Board members, under pressure from the public, wanted to invest more money in programs that would yield tangible improvements for T riders in the coming fiscal year and not years from now. The control board moved to bolster the T’s initiative to improve bus service by upping its budget from $4.5 million to $6.1 million. Board members also indicated they may steer more than $8 million into similar initiatives.

With the spending additions, the T should still manage to balance its budget for next year. The authority relies on money from the state sales tax, revenue it receives from fares and agency initiatives, and a $187 million appropriation from the Legislature. Typically, the T sets aside $150 million of the $187 million appropriation for longer-term capital projects and uses the remaining $37 million to balance its budget.

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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.

The T’s preliminary budget for fiscal 2020 calls on tapping $24.5 million of the $37 million to cover operating costs. With the $2.5 million reduction in the fare proposal and the $1.6 million increase in the T’s bus initiative, the transit authority will have to tap $28.6 million of the $37 million and control board members were considering using the remaining $8.4 million on projects that would yield tangible results for riders.

Tibbits-Nutt said tangible results include elevators that works and stations that are clean. “Dudley Station is disgusting and we have not found a way to clean it,” she said. “I’m not asking for an expansion of the system. I’m asking for the existing system to work.”