MBTA proposes 6.3% increase in fares

Subway price to rise 15 cents, bus 10 cents, LinkPass $5.50

THE  MBTA on Monday proposed a 6.3 percent overall fare increase that would take effect July 1 and help offset rising spending levels for employee pensions and commuter rail, ferry, and paratransit service.

State law allows the T to raise individual fare products a maximum of 7 percent every two years; this fare hike would be the first in three years and it would average 6.3 percent across all fare products. Some fares, including the cash bus fare, wouldn’t rise at all.

Under the T’s proposal, which must be approved by the Fiscal and Management Control Board, the regular bus fare would go up 10 cents to $1.80 and subway fares would rise 15 cents to $2.40. The price of the LinkPass, which offers unlimited rides on the bus and subway network, would go up $5.50, or 6.5 percent, to $90. Senior and student monthly passes would go up $2 to $32.

On commuter rail, the Zone 1 ticket price would go up 25 cents to $6.50, the Zone 4 ticket price would rise 50 cents to $8.75, and the Zone 8 pass would increase 75 cents to $12.25.

The cost of the LinkPass has risen sharply since 2016, going from $75 to $84.50 in 2016 and it would rise again to $90 if the current proposal is approved. T officials, however, say the breakeven point for using the LinkPass remains the same at 37.5 trips per month.

[A full breakdown of the fare increases and ways to give feedback to T officials can be found here. ]

T General Manager Steve Poftak said the fare proposal is in line with legislative guidance and with the Baker administration’s belief that regular, modest fare increases are appropriate.  Bus and subway ridership is trending downward at the T, and an agency analysis estimates the fare hike will accelerate that trend, causing an overall ridership loss of 1.3 percent.

Sen. Nick Collins of South Boston told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that the T shouldn’t raise fares because the hike will result in less ridership and more congestion on the roads.

But Poftak indicated he doesn’t believe the “static” MBTA analysis on passenger losses will prove accurate because of the many investments the T is making in improved service. The T plans to spend $8 billion over the next five years.

“Static economic models frequently get swamped both positively and negatively by other trends,” Poftak told reporters. “If we can make service more reliable, I think we will attract riders. If the MBTA offers a solution to surface road congestion that customers feel they can depend on, I believe ridership will go up.”

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of the control board, said she was concerned about how the fare increase will be perceived by riders, particularly riders who remember the last fare hike in 2016. “What we hear from a lot of them is that their commute has not improved,” she said.

At the State House, Gov. Charlie Baker said users of the T should pay their fair share. “Let’s not forget that the taxpayers who never ride the system write a check every year for over a billion dollars to the MBTA, and the trade on that is that fares need to cover about 40 percent of their operations,” he said.

Senate President Karen Spilka of Acton said the proposed fare increase suggests the T needs more funds. “I think it hits home that we need to invest to make sure that our public transportation system is affordable, accessible, and quality transportation, and it raises the fact that we don’t have the revenue right now to do that in the way that we all want to do that,” Spilka said.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said fares, and how much riders should pay for the services they receive, are likely to be major topics of discussion this year on Beacon Hill.

T officials say the fare hike is necessary to help offset rising expenses in fiscal 2020, which begins July 1. Using the methodology the T uses to calculate its deficit, the transit authority ‘s deficit is on track to more than double in the next fiscal year to $74 million. With the $32 million expected from the fare hike, the deficit would fall to $32 million.

The T’s deficit estimate to some degree is self-made. In addition to revenue the T receives from the state sales tax and generates on its own, the agency also receives a $187 million appropriation from the Legislature. The T has made it a priority to steer at least $150 million of the annual appropriation to the agency’s capital budget for investment in the transit system. The T considers any part of the $187 million that doesn’t go to capital spending to be part of the agency’s deficit.

Using that approach, the T is projecting a $37 million deficit this fiscal year, which is expected to grow to $74 million next year, even with the influx of $35 million in new sales tax revenue, other revenues, and assessments on communities in the T service area. Some of those revenues are subject to legislative approaval. The deficit is growing because of rising expenses for pensions ($17 million), commuter rail ($16 million), paratransit service ($5 million), and ferry service ($2 million).

The next time the T can raise fares will be 2021, which coincides with the launch of a new cashless fare collection system that will provide the agency with far more flexibility in setting prices. The T could continue with the same fare approach, but it could also set fares based on distance traveled or income levels of customers.

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Bruce Mohl

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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.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the current fare proposal is fairly simple compared to what will be considered in 2021. “This is a fairly policy-free fare increase,” she said.

Andy Metzger contributed to this report.