Pollack, control board at odds on income-based fares

Testy exchanges illustrate panel’s growing independence

REJECTING CONCERNS raised by state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, members of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday insisted on moving faster to embrace lower fares for low-income riders.

In a somewhat testy series of exchanges, control board members, who are all appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, rejected efforts by the governor’s point person on transportation to slow down the move toward income-based fares, which are often called means-tested fares. The back-and-forth was the most recent example of the board’s growing independence of the Baker administration.

The debate centered around a presentation to the control board that focused on the challenges involved in granting discounted fares to Massachusetts residents making 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The presentation examined fares discounts of 50 percent on subway, bus, commuter rail, ferry, and paratransit rides and a 66 percent discount for monthly bus and subway passes.

Laurel Paget-Seekins, the T’s assistant general manager for policy, estimated 61,000 bus and subway riders and 4,000 commuter rail and ferry riders would be eligible for the discounts. She estimated the cost of providing the discounts would range from $32 million to $73 million, with a midrange number of $51 million likely.

Paget-Seekins identified 10 feasibility questions to answer, and indicated there were no conclusive answers on any of them. She recommended investing in the existing means-tested fare program, the youth pass, and learning more from that effort before moving on to the rollout of broader income-based fares.

Pollack piggybacked on that theme, saying it’s no easy task identifying who would be eligible for the fare discounts, verifying ongoing eligibility over time, and cracking down on fraud. “This is very hard,” she said.

Members of the control board were not dissuaded. Brian Lang, a board member and union leader, said the board has been pushing for discounted fares and should not be put off. “This is a political will question more than a work logistical difficulty question,” he said. “We should expect our political leaders to support us in this by any means necessary.”

Pollack reiterated her position. “This is not a question of political support,” she said, noting the staff analysis examined the feasibility of launching discounted fares and concluded a lot more work needs to be done. “We should not promise what we can’t deliver,” Pollack said.

Pollack noted only 4,000 discounted youth passes have been issued even though the number of people eligible is much, much greater. She also returned to her concern about fraud, worrying about the potential for news reports about people using discounted fares who are not eligible for them.

Chrystal Kornegay, a board member who also serves as the executive director of MassHousing, said the MBTA should simplify the eligibility process by aligning with some agency or government program that does means-testing already and launch a pilot using that agency’s approach. She said she thinks the discounts, if promoted properly, will attract a lot of interest.

Board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt asked Paget-Seekins how many people the T has assigned to the youth pass program, and was told only one employee is working on it. Tibbits-Nutt said that was not enough. “We are not investing in making that successful,” she said.

She also dismissed Pollack’s concern about people riding the commuter rail using discounts for which they aren’t eligible.  “People on the commuter rail already aren’t paying,” she said, apparently referring to reports of people who ride the trains without paying.

MBTA General Manager Steven Poftak said he wanted to know where the money for the fare discounts would come from. Pollack interjected that the money for such programs typically comes from cross-subsidization, with some customers paying more so others will pay less. “That itself is a major policy decision,” she said.

Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board, said he agreed with his fellow board members on the need to push ahead with a means-tested fare. With the House planning to take up a transportation funding bill early next year, Aiello said the board should give the Legislature information on what the fare discount will cost. Aiello’s comment about an appeal to the Legislature was significant since in the past he has said it’s not the board’s job to make funding recommendations to Beacon Hill. Baker has suggested there is no need for addition transportation funding beyond his transportation bond legislation.

The issue of means-testing also surfaced in a presentation on changing the way commuter rail zones are configured. Fares on the commuter rail are based largely on distance traveled, starting from zone 1A, where tickets cost the same as subway fares, all the way up to 10. The jump in fares from zone 1A is substantial; the zone 1A fare is $2.40, while the zone 1 fare is $6.50, zone 2 is $7, and so on up to $13.25 in zone 10.

Advocates have been pushing for expanding the number of communities contained in zone 1A, but the presentation, also by Paget-Seekins, indicated that approach would do little to address fare equity. She noted low-income riders are scattered around the region, particularly in many Gateway Cities. She also noted that the commuter rail system tends to serve wealthier riders; only 7 percent of commuter rail riders are low income, compared to 42 percent of bus riders and 26 percent of subway riders.

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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.

Paget-Seekins said one option would be to reduce the price jump from zone 1A to zones 1 and 2 by cutting the zone 1 fare $2.25 to $4 and the zone 2 fare by $1 to $6.  The problem with doing that is it would benefit many well-to-do riders and possibly trigger violations of federal laws governing fare equity. In Lynn, for example, 22 percent of riders are low income, less than the 29 percent average for the entire MBTA. “It’s possible we could create a legal equity problem,” Pollack said.

Aiello said all the complications with the commuter rail zones suggest the best way to address fare equity is to offer discounts to riders based on their income levels and not which stations they live near. He directed Paget-Seeking to report back to the board with additional information in January.