T board wary of go-it-alone fare hike

Lang: Political leaders should ‘grow a little courage’ on transportation revenues

FACING PUSHBACK FROM THE PUBLIC  and transportation advocates on a proposed 6.3 percent average MBTA fare increase, some members of the transit agency’s oversight board signaled on Monday that they may not rubber-stamp the increase.

Brian Lang, a director of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said the T shouldn’t be raising its fares in isolation from the rest of the transportation system. He called on political leaders to “grow a little courage” and assess higher fees on ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, boost the gas tax, and increase tolls at peak travel periods and lower them at off-peak times.

“I’m not an expert on this stuff, but it’s kind of like no-brainers,” he said, noting that the revenue measures could provide financial support for the MBTA while simultaneously discouraging people from driving on their own or using Uber and Lyft.

“To talk about generating revenue for the T only from the T is completely wrong headed,” Lang said. “If you look at any of the systems from around the world that are world class, it’s all coordinated.”

Lang, who was appointed to the control board by Gov. Charlie Baker, said he hasn’t talked to the governor about the need for a coordinated approach on transportation revenues. “I’m talking about the Legislature. I’m talking about all of our political leaders. I’m not pinpointing one political leader,” he said.

Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, said he thought Massport, which operates Logan International Airport, should be doing more to alleviate traffic congestion caused by the airport. He said Massport data indicate Uber and Lyft generated 12 million total vehicle trips to and from Logan in 2018, but only 7 million involved passenger drop-offs or pickups. The other 5 million Uber and Lyft trips to and from Logan did not carry any passengers, but nevertheless contributed to congestion.

The comments in support of a coordinated approach on transportation revenues does not mean the control board will reject the MBTA’s proposed fare hike. The fare increase, which would take effect July 1, would bring in an estimated $32 million that the T is counting on to help balance its fiscal 2020 budget.

The proposed fare hike, which could come to a vote as early as next week, would raise bus fares 10 cents to $1.80, subway fares 15 cents to $2.40, and monthly passes for unlimited subway and bus rides by $5.50 to $90. Senior and student passes would rise $2 to $32.

Transit advocates are urging the T not to raise fares, which even the transit agency admits will depress ridership slightly and possibly contribute to an increase in overall traffic congestion in and around Boston. Many of the advocates, including TransitMatters, said fares should only go up if T service improves and other modes of transportation (ride-sharing apps, personal vehicles) are also facing higher charges.

Ride-hailing apps currently pay a 20-cent fee per ride; the fee is split between the municipality where the ride originates (10 cents) with the remaining 10 cents split between the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, which uses the money to support the taxi industry, and the Commonwealth Transportation Fund.

The comments by Lang and Aiello signal a restiveness about the T’s go-it-alone approach on raising revenues.  Some members of the control board also indicated they were interested in modifying the fare hike proposal to lessen the impact on low-income riders.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of the control board, said many MBTA riders view the average 6.3 percent increase in fares as too much. “It may not be a big deal to us, but for them it is a big impact,” she said. She asked T staff to provide more information on whether merging Zone 1 and Zone 1A commuter rail fares would make sense.

Lang asked T staff to assess the financial impact of leaving bus fares and fares paid by students and seniors untouched. He said he thought leaving those fares as they are would lessen the financial impact on the T’s low-income riders.

Asked what the analysis would have to show for him to push for a change in the fare proposal, Lang said he wasn’t sure. “I’ll tell you after I see [the analysis,]” he said.

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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.

When the issue of higher assessments on ride-hailing apps first surfaced, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack pointedly noted that the control board has no control over those fees. “We need to control what we can control,” she said.

But when the issue surfaced a second time and seem to have support from several members, she told the control board that she would be happy to carry their message about a coordinated approach on transportation fees to the Legislature and other political leaders.