T means-tested fare experiment called bust

Riders didn’t respond to discount for The RIDE

THE MBTA ON MONDAY said an experiment with a means-tested fare for its costly paratransit service failed to attract enough riders to make it worthwhile and decided instead to offer customers of The RIDE a broader range of affordable options.

The decision cast a pall over efforts to launch means-tested fares more broadly at the T and disappointed seniors who pushed for the continuation of the fares at the weekly meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board. Several of the seniors told board members that elimination of means-tested fares would put the transportation lifeline out of reach for them.

The RIDE offers 57,000 disabled customers door-to-door service through private transportation vendors. Customers are required to make appointments a day in advance. Ridership plummeted by 26 percent in July 2012 when the price of the service doubled to $4 and bounced back by 11 percent when the fare was cut to $3 in December 2013.

In the experiment, the MBTA offered a $1 discount off its current $3.15 paratransit fare to 577 individuals who had annual household incomes of less than $35,000, or 300 percent of the federal poverty level. T officials said ridership during the experiment increased 4.6 percent, well below the projected level of 10 percent. The officials also said they had difficulty verifying the income eligibility of participants and saw costs rise by about $3.1 million as more people used a service that costs the T about $40 per ride.

Michael Lambert, deputy transit administrator at the state Transportation Department, said the low increase in ridership and the higher costs convinced T officials to expand alternative services that offer low fares at lower cost to the T.

Specifically, the T is expanding its $2 pilot programs with Uber and Lyft and in February launching Uber Pool, which will allow a single car to pick up multiple RIDE customers at a price of $1 per person. A subsidized taxi program will launch in April. The RIDE is also issuing half-fare Charlie Cards to RIDE customers and plans to test a free-fare card this spring.  The T also plans to direct RIDE customers to free medical transportation offered by MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program.

Members of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board supported the T’s approach. Monica Tibbits-Nutt said the results of the experiment suggest users of The Ride are not a homogeneous group so a one-size-fits-all service program doesn’t make sense for them.

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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.

Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, brought many seniors to the meeting who urged the board to retain means-tested fares for the Ride. She noted a survey of participants in the experiment revealed that the number of people who had trouble paying for the Ride dropped from 50 percent to 29 percent with means testing.

Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator and acting general manager, said the rising cost of The Ride program is making it difficult to balance this year’s budget. He said the program was $6.6 million over budget in the first six months of fiscal 2017 and will likely end the year $14 million over budget.