T board mad weekend commuter rail pass is ending
$10 fare helped boost revenues in 2018 by 4.6 percent
MEMBERS OF THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board weren’t pleased on Monday when they learned a largely successful six-month pilot program offering commuter rail customers a $10 ride-as-much-as-you-want weekend pass is coming to a halt so a federally required equity analysis can be done.
The three board members at the meeting ordered staff to explore all legal and other options to keep the program running uninterrupted. The chairman of the board even suggested launching a new pilot at a slightly different price point to maintain the program’s momentum.
MBTA officials, however, urged caution, saying at least a one-week hiatus would be needed to assess options. Laurel Paget-Seekins, the T’s director of fare policy and analytics, said the federal government requires an equity analysis to see if all income groups are being treated equally whenever fares are changed for longer than six months. The analysis typically comes into play with a fare hike, but Paget-Seekins say the rules also apply to fare cuts.
That didn’t sit well with Brian Shortsleeve, a member of the oversight board and a former general manager of the T. He said it takes time to build momentum for fare initiatives and cutting the program off after six months will disrupt that momentum. “It doesn’t make sense,” Shortsleeve said.
Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the board, suggested launching a new pilot at a slightly different price point – say $9.95 – to evade the federal rules. Aiello said there must be some way to “slip it by them,” referring to the Federal Transit Administration.
But T officials adopted a cautious approach, saying they would research options and report back to the board next Monday.
The T launched the special $10 weekend fare on June 9 in a bid to see if people could be incentivized to use nearly empty commuter rail trains on weekends for trips into Boston or out to the suburbs, rural areas, and beaches. The project was initially scheduled to end at the end of the summer but was extended through this past weekend.
Results showed that 180,000 weekend passes were sold over the six-month period, or an average of 7,200 per weekend. Commuter rail revenue overall was up 4.6 percent, or about $350,000, in 2018 versus the same period in 2017 despite the lower fare.Still, the $10 pass represented only 23 percent of weekend sales, which means three-quarters of weekend riders continued to purchase regular fares. Evan Rowe, the T’s director of revenue, offered two possible explanations. He said riders who receive student or senior discounts, have monthly passes, commute inside metro Boston, or commute within a zone would probably pay less buying the fares the traditional way.
But Rowe said many passengers may have never learned about the special $10 weekend pass, despite the T’s advertising of the product. He noted anyone traveling into Boston from zone 1 or above would save money buying the weekend pass even if it was used for just one roundtrip. A singe roundtrip between Needham Center and Boston, for example, would cost $10 with the pass, $13.50 without it.