What’s better for T: No fares or low-income fare?

MBTA board set to take up alternative fare proposals

BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu has captured the public’s attention with her push for fare-free buses and eventually a fare-free MBTA, but now an alternative approach to fares is emerging from the MBTA itself.

The alternative approach is a discounted fare for low-income riders. Its supporters say it would be better to offer discounted fares to low-income riders who need a price break rather than offering free rides to everyone. Transportation advocates and politicians are divided over the best approach because there are advantages to both.

The debate is likely to kick into high gear on Thursday at a meeting of the MBTA board of directors, which has an item on its agenda entitled “alternative fare proposals.” T officials didn’t release any materials on the proposals in advance of the meeting, but board chair Betsy Taylor said earlier that the panel would hear a report from T staff on what it would take to offer low-income riders a discount on all fares at the T.

The idea of a low-income fare has been percolating a long time, with several members of the previous T oversight board warming to the idea. At their final meeting in June, the Fiscal and Management Control board passed a resolution directing staff to develop a pilot project testing the low-income fare concept and to present that pilot to the new board in October for action. No pilot was ever presented, and it’s unclear if one will be presented on Thursday.

Jim Aloisi, the former state transportation secretary and current TransitMatters board member, is a big fan of Wu’s embrace of doing away with fares on buses. He believes eliminating fares on the bus network would attract more passengers and allow them to board buses quickly, which will speed up service. Better service, in turn, will attract even more riders, he says.

Aloisi said offering low-income riders a fare discount won’t do anything to improve service. “I think it’s a big bureaucratic nightmare and it’s going to cost a lot to run it,” he said.

But Aloisi is adamant that he only wants to do away with fares on buses, which tend to service lower-income riders and struggle to offer reliable service. “I’m not talking about anything but free bus,” he said.

Staci Rubin of the Conservation Law Foundation said she favors a low-income fare over free fares because the discount would apply to trips across the entire T system. She said many passengers board buses and then transfer to subways or commuter rail trains to reach their final destination, so making the bus free doesn’t really save many passengers money.

“We need a systemwide fix,” Rubin said, backing “low-income fares on all modes across the T so people can get where they need to go.”

Taylor, the chair of the MBTA board, hasn’t taken a stand on a specific alternative fare proposal, but in a recent interview with CommonWealth she said she would favor a low-income fare, sometimes called a means-tested fare, instead of doing away with fares entirely.

“Right now I think free fares for certain routes help people in places. Means-tested fares help people, or should be designed to help people, who need help. So is one going to subsidize places or subsidize people?” Taylor asked. “If I were picking, and I’m only one vote of seven, I’d pick subsidizing people over subsidizing places.”

Meet the Author

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.

Wu in March is launching a two-year experiment with fare free buses on three MBTA routes. The city is using $8 million in federal COVID relief funds to reimburse the MBTA for foregoing fares on the three routes. The mayor says her ultimate goal is an entirely fare-free MBTA, but she rarely offers specifics about how to pay for it except to seek financial help from the state and federal governments.

Gov. Charlie Baker opposes the idea of eliminating fares on the T. He also vetoed legislation at the beginning of 2021 authorizing the T to offer discounted fares to low-income riders because there was no mechanism in place to cover the cost.

It’s unclear whether the MBTA will recommend a funding mechanism for discounted fares on Thursday. Several members of the previous T oversight board, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, said the T should launch a pilot of means-tested fares even without a funding source as a way of forcing the Legislature to address the issue.