MBTA fare enforcement in ‘legal vacuum’

New ‘non-punitive’ regs would allow fines to resume

TWO YEARS AGO, the Legislature amended the MBTA’s fare evasion statute, decriminalizing the offense and lowering the range of possible fines.

The Legislature left the details to the T, but those details, in the form of new regulations, never got approved, leaving the MBTA with no legal authority to enforce any fare evasion penalties since January 2021.

That may change this week, as the MBTA seeks the approval of its board for a new set of regulations that are being described as “non-punitive” and designed not to raise revenue but to encourage fare compliance.

An MBTA spokesman on Tuesday said staffers were busy preparing for board presentations this week and unable to answer questions about whether fare evasion has increased over the last two years without any enforcement.

At a public hearing in June, however, T officials acknowledged the dilemma. “We’re currently in a legal vacuum,” said Sefira Bell-Masterson, the T’s deputy director of all-door boarding and proof of payment. “We don’t have any approved regulations as relates to fare evasion so we don’t have any tools to enforce our current fare policies.”

An initial bid to approve new fare evasion regulations in May 2021 collapsed when they got entangled in a broader debate about poverty and fares in general.

Members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board – the T’s previous oversight board – balked at assessing $50 fines for fare evasion and suggested lowering the fine to $10. Board members said they might go along with a higher fine if it was accompanied by a program offering discounted fares to low-income riders.

The T is now seeking the support of the MBTA’s current board of directors for a revised set of fare evasion regulations. The new regulations call for two types of fines – one type for what T officials are calling “plain vanilla” fare evasion and another set for those who misuse reduced fare credentials belonging to others.

In both cases, an initial incident would trigger a written warning. First, second, and third offenses would trigger a $50 fine for the vanilla violations and $75 for misusing someone else’s credential. Fourth and subsequent offenses would trigger fines of $100 and $150, respectively.

Offenses would operate on a three-year time clock, meaning the slate would be wiped clean three years from the initial warning.

The proposed regulations, according to the presentation at the public hearing in June, dropped a provision requiring that the names of riders with multiple unpaid fines be referred to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which could put a hold on a license renewal until the fines are paid.

Fare evasion has long been a concern at the MBTA, but the authority has often been slow to address it. On October 1, fare gates went live for commuter rail trains at North Station and similar gates are soon to come at South Station and Back Bay Station.

A new tap-in, tap-out fare collection system is coming, which should allow the T to dispense with drivers collecting fares on board buses and Green Line trains and allow passengers to board through all doors.

T officials have talked about hiring a fare enforcement team of 80-90 people who would do spot checks on board buses and Green Line trains to verify passengers have paid. At the public meeting on fare evasion regulations in June, however, there was no discussion of an enforcement team, perhaps because the T is already struggling this year to fill some 2,000 positions, many of them in critical safety areas.