Two Alternatives to Raising MBTA Fares
Rep. Andy X. Vargas
Stakeholders from across several sectors have expressed deep concern for the MBTA’s proposed fare increases. Advocates, employers and legislators across Massachusetts with different (but important) relationships to MBTA service, agree: the proposed increase will harm our constituencies.
It is reasonable to respect the need for further revenue to support the MBTA’s vital services to our regional economy. However, a fare increase is deeply unfair to riders. The system suffers from service and reliability issues as it stands; charging higher fares will drive folks away from the MBTA’s services—both for the subway and for the commuter rail. Raising the cost of public transit punishes commuters who are contributing the most to reduce traffic across the board. Already extreme traffic conditions will worsen and environmental burdens will increase—meaning we will subvert the reasons for strong public transit in the first place.
The fare increase will most deeply affect our most vulnerable populations—students, low-income, and seniors—and will affect the ability of these populations to get where they need to go. Without transportation mobility, we undermine economic mobility (and ultimately, economic output). The MBTA cannot expect our most vulnerable to shoulder the burden of the system’s deficits.
A subway pass is proposed to increase 6.5% per month, from $84.50 to $90. Upon first glance, this increase may not seem excessive. But when you examine the increases holistically, the impact is obvious. In 2012, a LinkPass cost $59. Seven years later, the MBTA is asking riders to pay approximately 53% more. Subway and bus passenger counts are already down since 2012, and this proposal is likely to exacerbate decreased ridership across the service area.
Conversely, commuter rail ridership is up 20% since 2012. According to Commonwealth Magazine, “Commuter rail fare revenue is up, rising 25 per cent between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2018…In fiscal 2018 alone, commuter rail fare revenue increased $7.5 million, while fare revenue from all other modes of travel, primarily buses and subways, decreasing $5.5 million.” One can draw the conclusion that folks are moving out of the subway zones and into commuter rail territory, perhaps due to unaffordable housing and general living expenses. Yet, under the proposed fare increase schedule, a Zone 10 pass, for example, will now cost $426 a month—a $27.75 increase per month from the current fare. Communities outside of the subway’s purview will feel this, and the increase is likely to affect greater Boston’s regional economy.
Instead of a fare increase, we should pursue other alternatives to increase MBTA and general transportation revenue, including:
1. Assessing fees on transportation network companies (TNC). The current flat fee of 20 cents per ride leaves room for improvement. Assessing fees on TNCs is a viable option for increased revenue for the MBTA that does not require fare increases. Among other bills, HD1915, filed by Representatives Livingstone and Madaro and Senator Crighton would address this issue by creating a fee structure of 6.25% of each ride for single user trips and 4.25 per cent for shared trips. The legislation also gives the fourteen municipalities serviced by the subway the option of imposing a $2.25 surcharge for each ride taken during the subway’s operating hours. This would also encourage carpooling to reduce existing traffic from ridesharing companies, as well as incentivizing use of public transportation.
2. Implement dynamic tolling. The state’s population is growing rapidly—forecasted to add 600,000 by 2040. Our roads and highways aren’t currently equipped to handle that drastic of an increase. We should be encouraging folks to use public transportation instead of cars, which contribute to traffic and environmental anguish. Dynamic tolling would allow us to charge for use of our roads at peak times, encouraging ridership on public transit and generating revenue at the same time. Both Uber and the Boston Globe editorial board have expressed support for dynamic tolling.
Dynamic tolling is used in Virginia for solo drivers who enter into Washington, DC during peak hours of congestion. According to the Virginia Department of Transportation which implemented dynamic tolling on certain roads in December 2017, there was a 45% drop in average travel time during morning commute hours on the first day, compared to data from a similar day a year prior. Other roads without dynamic tolling showed similar patterns to the previous year. Among other bills, SD1456, filed by Senator Boncore, reduces congestion and its impacts by directing the Department of Transportation to create variable tolling which considers time of day, peak-hour tolling, and discount structures.
Either of these options, individually or combined, would bring in the requested $32M. We should seek these pragmatic revenue streams instead of levying a fare increase on those relying on public transit.
We have the opportunity to advance smart, thoughtful legislation that examines the need for revenue while supporting increased reliability, equity, and long-term improvements to the system at-large.
 Commonwealth Magazine, December 14, 2018.