T notes: Low-income fares back on agenda

$79m cost to relocate commuter rail safety function underground

MBTA OFFICIALS presented new, lower cost estimates for introducing low-income fares on Thursday, but it was unclear when or if the T board will move ahead with the proposal.

At a meeting of the MBTA board, T staff estimated the cost of cutting fares in half on all transportation modes for riders earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level would fall somewhere between $46 million and $58 million a year, with the midway point being $52 million.

Those estimates were down significantly from estimates in February, when T staff put the price tag at between $59 million and $98 million a year. In February, the T estimated 70,000 riders could take advantage of low-income, or means-tested, fares.  On Thursday, that estimate was lowered to 60,000.

Prior to COVID, the cost estimates were even higher.

The presentation suggested a low-income fare would be a better option than eliminating fares entirely on the bus system, as Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has proposed. Wu is currently using city funds to pay the cost of a fare-free bus experiment on three MBTA routes. Early reports indicate the experiment boosted ridership and speeded up boarding but saved only about a third of the riders any money because most ended up transferring to other buses or other T services where fare payment was required.

T officials said a low-income fare would financially benefit low-income riders across the transit system and attract many new riders to commuter rail. “We believe there is significant opportunity to help low-income commuter rail riders who are currently priced out of the system,” the T presentation said.

The presentation also noted that transit systems in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, are offering low-income fares.

MBTA board members engaged in little discussion about low-income fares following the presentation. The chair, Betsy Taylor, said the board would take the issue up in the months to come.  The board’s predecessor, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, had urged the new board to approve a low-income fare a year ago.

T board member Robert Butler indicated he wanted to have a discussion about introducing a low-income fare. “We really have to take a hard look at this,” he said.

T to spend $79m burying commuter rail communication system 

The MBTA board on Thursday approved spending $79 million to relocate underground a small portion of a communication system installed above ground five years ago to prevent commuter rail collisions.

The communication system, strung from telephone poles in 2017, allows monitors to track the speed and location of trains and shut them down if a collision is imminent.  The system is required by the federal government.

Jaime Garmendia, project manager for commuter rail safety, said the MBTA anticipated tree falls and other incidents would snap the wires occasionally, maybe five times a year. But he said it happened 16 times in 2021, a rate that has degraded quality and decreased reliability on the line.

To deal with the problem, the T intends to relocate the safety function to underground fiber lines, starting with the Fitchburg and Lowell commuter rail lines, where the most breaks have occurred. Garmendia said fiber lines on other commuter rail lines would be buried as funds become available.

T officials said the overhead aerial lines are not being removed, and will be repurposed for other uses.,

The MBTA board approved the $79 million plan with no discussion.

Ridership rebounding

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said MBTA ridership is close to or exceeding its highest ridership levels since COVID struck in March 2020.

As previously reported by CommonWealth, the biggest turnaround has come with commuter rail, which had fallen to as few as 10,000 riders a week but is now hovering around 85,000. Poftak said bus and subway ridership are also increasing.

“A good newsw story in terms of riders coming back to the T,” Poftak said.

Even so, MBTA ridership remains well below what it was before COVID. Bus has about 75 percent of its pre-COVID ridership, commuter rail is at 69 percent, and subway is at 53 percent.

New anonymous employee concerns hotline

The MBTA has taken heat for the poor way it has handled an anonymous tip line where employees can share safety concerns, but the agency is nevertheless rolling out a separate tip line for workers to report concerns about employee relations, fraud, ethics, harassment, or discrimination.