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.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt said she wasn’t aware the pass would come to such an abrupt halt. She said T staff should have been planning for this contingency all along to avoid this type of disruption.

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.

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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.

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.