Isolation problem: T fares rising faster than cost of driving

Trend could hinder efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

IN NOVEMBER 1990, Bill Weld won his first election as governor, NBC aired the first full season of Seinfeld, and someone driving from Melrose to catch a Bruins game could expect to pay 87 cents more for the car trip than the $1.65 train fare into North Station.

A lot has changed since then.

Looking at data going back three decades to 1990, the year state officials use as a benchmark for greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that the cost of riding the T has escalated faster than the cost of driving. A combination of dramatic fare hikes in 2012, relatively consistent increases since then, and fairly moderate and stable gas prices in recent years have given drivers an edge when measuring raw per-mile, un-tolled costs of travel. Taking the 9.7-mile car trip from Melrose Highlands to the TD Garden at North Station last year would have set drivers back about $5.29 – not including parking – while taking the commuter rail costs $6.25, almost a dollar more.

This chart shows the indexed cost of travel by MBTA subway, bus and commuter rail as compared to the cost of driving and the price of a gallon of gasoline.


MORE ON THIS ANALYSIS: Pulling the data together

VIEW THE DATA: Download the spreadsheet


This July, prices across much of the MBTA will rise again. Bus fares will not increase.

During the last big legislative debate over transportation financing in 2013, state policymakers emphasized the benefits of regular, moderate increases in fares to avoid the type of irregular, steep hikes that caused public outcry the year prior. Now key lawmakers and some members of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board have suggested fares should not rise in isolation – that the relative cost of public transit should not be going up at a time when transit ridership is down, road congestion is rising, and transportation emissions are increasing.

“People are increasingly realizing that the incentives that government provides people are really important in the outcomes that we get in transportation, and we need to be giving people better choices,” said Chris Dempsey, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts. “In a world where we are raising MBTA fares and gas prices are near historical lows on an inflation-adjusted basis, it’s no wonder we have the worst congestion in the history of Massachusetts when those two things are happening at the same time.”

One option is to lower or even eliminate T fares rather than keep raising them. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has advocated this approach, saying that eliminating T fares would ease the burden for those least able to pay, reward those doing their part to ease congestion, and help lower harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Another option would be to incentivize people to get out of their cars by increasing the cost of driving. Policy choices include raising the gas tax, hiking fees on ride-hailing apps, increasing tolls, or charging vehicles more to use toll roads at peak congestion periods.

Key lawmakers on Beacon Hill seem to favor one or more of the options for increasing the cost of driving. “Our roads are a public use in this Commonwealth. They’re well under-priced, creating a shortage in them, and simple economics says that when there’s a shortage of a good, we run out of it. And that’s clearly what’s happened,” said Sen. Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, during a recent appearance on the Codcast podcast.

Boncore’s House counterpart, Mattapoisett Democrat Rep. William Straus, said he favors the gas tax as a means of raising new transportation revenues. “People who depend on and take the T – whether it’s on the bus or on the subways or on the commuter rail – shouldn’t feel that they’re expected to shoulder the burden. That’s not what I hear any of my colleagues saying,” Straus said on the podcast.

The Baker administration, meanwhile, is pursuing a multistate agreement seeking to put a price on the carbon contained in automobile fuels, which would create a revenue stream that could finance cleaner ways of getting around while raising the cost of driving a gas-powered car.

By various measures, the cost of driving (not including the cost of the car itself, insurance, maintenance, tolls, etc.) has become cheaper in comparison to travel by T over the past three decades. Over that same time period, Massachusetts consumers have generally increased the number of miles they drive and the amount of gasoline they consume.

The Orange Line trundles below two decks of Interstate 93 in Charlestown during rush hour on a May morning. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Highway vehicle miles traveled in Massachusetts have climbed from 48.8 billion miles in 1990 to a peak of 60.9 billion miles in 2014, according to 1990-2015 data displayed on the state’s website.

An analysis of aggregate annual gas tax receipts shows that gasoline sales topped out in fiscal 2005 – when 3.26 billion gallons were sold in the Bay State. But with 3.20 billion gallons sold in fiscal 2018, drivers are still buying and burning nearly as much motor fuel these days as they had just before the Great Recession. By comparison, in  fiscal 1992, Massachusetts gas stations sold 2.57 billion gallons, according to an analysis of state tax receipts. That means the total amount of gasoline sold in Massachusetts over the past quarter century has actually increased by about 25 percent even as car engines have become more efficient and the public has learned more about the perils of climate change.

Government officials have done little to disrupt the cost trends; collectively, they have contributed to it in some ways. Gas prices are largely determined by market forces, but the 24-cent (or 26.5-cent if you include the underground storage tank fee) per-gallon gas tax is fully under state control. A 3-cent per gallon increase in 2013 was the last state gas tax hike since 1991. Between July 1990 and January 1991, lawmakers increased the per-gallon tax from 11 cents to 21 cents.

Last year, a passenger on the B Line trolley leaving from Park Street Station would need to travel beyond Packard’s Corner in Allston before the $2.25 ride became cheaper than driving the same distance, according to the Internal Revenue Service’s per-mile calculations for car travel in 2018. In prior years, with some exceptions, those same trolley riders heading out from Park Street started receiving a discount compared to drivers as soon as they passed the BU Bridge. That trip from Park Street to Packard’s Corner could cost a ride-hailing customer between $7 and $51 without tip depending on which app and means of travel the passenger chose. A taxi would cost around $13. The dynamic is likely to skew more in favor of driving once the regular subway fare increases to $2.40 on July 1.

Unlike prior decades, many of the cars on the road today are piloted by Uber and Lyft drivers cashing in on the popularity of smartphone-enabled car trips on demand. In 2017, there were 64.8 million such trips originating in Massachusetts going an average of 4.5 miles each. More than one third originated in Boston. If the number of Uber and Lyft trips to Logan Airport are an indicator of the statewide trend last year, the 2018 figures will be much higher.

Meanwhile, ridership on the MBTA has declined in recent years. System-wide, the month with the largest number of T trips was October 2014, when there were 38.5 million transit passengers, according to federal data. Last October, there were 34 million passengers on the T. Subway and bus ridership are both down, while the trend lines for commuter rail passenger traffic are unclear. The Pioneer Institute contends that commuter rail ridership is down, although MBTA data shows commuter rail ridership increased over the past six years.

The driving experience has become a victim of its own popularity. Car traffic has become pretty much a daily headache for commuters. Inrix, a traffic data firm, calculated that Boston has the eighth-worst traffic in the world as area drivers spent an average of nearly a solid week – 164 hours – in congestion in 2018.

A recent survey conducted by the MassINC Polling Group found that Massachusetts drivers and transit riders are both frustrated by delays. Eighty-two percent of the respondents reported that they drive alone to get around. While unreliability, safety, and convenience were reported as significant obstacles to taking public transportation, cost was also a factor. Slightly more than half of the 1,200 respondents said the high cost of public transportation was at least somewhat of an obstacle.

All the driving takes a toll on the environment. While the power sector and residential heating sectors have made significant strides in lowering their greenhouse gas output, transportation emissions by 2016 had actually increased about 2.4 million metric tons above the 28.9 million metric tons emitted in 1990, according to the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Annual carbon emissions overall dropped 21 percent, or the equivalent of 19 million metric tons between 1990 and 2016. State law requires Massachusetts to reduce its carbon emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by next year, though no one will know whether Massachusetts hit that target until years later. The Baker administration is commissioning a study to look at how to reach the 2050 goal of emissions that are 80 percent less than 1990 levels.

North Station is a busy hub for commuter rail trains, and it is also right next to the Zakim Bridge, which carries people commuting by car during morning rush hour. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Any increase to the cost of driving statewide would run the risk of penalizing people who have no other viable means of travel. In much of the state, transit is either non-existent or too infrequent to rely upon, and some people’s schedules and family situations make non-car travel unrealistic.

The decision makers at the MBTA are political appointees, and are insulated from direct repercussions at the ballot box. The same is not true for the lawmakers planning to debate a new revenue package since their constituents on the whole still use a car as their primary means of getting around, especially if they live in the parts of the state without access to reliable transit.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“It’s going to take the Legislature some true political courage,” said Boncore, who supports congestion pricing. “In two years, we also line up against an election season. It’s tough to take those votes going into an election cycle, but we’re prepared to, and we understand we have to.”