Healey budget moves means-tested fares off back burner

Proposal steers $5m to initiative, giving it some momentum

AN MBTA means-tested fare seems to be getting on track on Beacon Hill with the Healey administration’s decision to include $5 million for the initiative in its budget proposal for fiscal 2024.

The Legislature in 2019 approved a lower fare pilot for income-qualifying residents, but former governor Charlie Baker vetoed the measure because it didn’t identify a revenue source for the ongoing costs. Now, with Healey showing interest, the measure once again has some momentum.

The means-tested fare provision in the budget proposal nevertheless created confusion because it wasn’t clear what the $5 million was for. Healey’s budget officials variously called it money for research, a pilot project, or a study.

“The $5 million would go to pilot initiatives, a research study around this,” Healey said on Thursday. “If we’re going to implement means-tested fares, we want to do it in the best possible way.”

MBTA officials say the $5 million would be used to build the necessary infrastructure to launch means-tested fares, including development of an online application, design of training materials for staffers, and completion of regulatory and technical requirements.

The $5 million doesn’t automatically greenlight means-tested fares; the money just means the initiative can move forward a bit.

The MBTA’s latest analysis of means-tested fares was in late October, when staffers estimated the cost of cutting fares in half on all transportation modes for riders earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level would fall somewhere between $46 million and $58 million a year, with the midway point being $52 million.

The discount as outlined in October would mimic other MBTA reduced-fare programs currently offered, meaning a half-priced fare would be available for nearly all single-ride tickets and monthly passes, and a 60 percent discount would be available for monthly passes in the inner-core of the MBTA service area.

Officials say the MBTA board of directors will probably take up means-tested fares later this year. The previous board, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, recommended in mid-2021 that the T move ahead with a low-income fare pilot, but the current board has been hesitant to act.

T officials have long viewed a fare for low-income riders as a better approach than making the T free. Early results from the city of Boston’s fare free bus experiment indicated that approach boosted ridership and speeded up boarding, but saved only about a third of the riders any money because most of them ended up transferring to other T services where fare payment was required.

At the October presentation, T officials said a low-income fare would financially benefit low-income riders across the transit system, not just on buses, and probably attract many new riders to commuter rail.

The presentation also noted that transit systems in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, are offering low-income fares.