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MBTA Should Cancel Proposed Fare Spike

This is the text of a letter sent on February 25, 2019 to oppose the MBTA fare increases proposed for July 2019. The MBTA is accepting comments through Thursday, February 28.

Increasing MBTA fares to plug a small budget gap is a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to transportation. Chris Dempsey, Director of Transportation for Massachusetts, has noted that increasing the gas tax by one cent would raise the same amount of revenue without sacrificing transit ridership. Increasing, let alone maintaining, transit ridership is essential.

A series of reports have underscored that climate change is real, it’s happening today, and we need “rapid and far-reaching transitions” over the next 12 years to avoid the worst effects.[ The transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts and nationally.,[ Single occupancy vehicles are a prime culprit.

While an average 6.3 percent fare increase might not seem unreasonable. The increase would not occur in isolation. Gas prices in Massachusetts are low and falling. Meanwhile, the state highway system—not accounting for the thousands of miles of local roads and bridges—faces a shortfall of $6.5 billion over the next 10 years.[ Despite this shortfall, the State only chooses to squeeze transit riders, and, in doing so, encourages more people to drive.

I do not own a car. While I continue to hold a driver’s license, the last time I drove daily was 11 years ago when I was a student in high school. At the time, gas was $4/gallon or $4.77 in today’s dollars. Prices are nowhere close to that high today, averaging only $2.38/gallon in Massachusetts.[ Maintenance needs are high, yet the cost to drive remains low.

Facing considerable road maintenance needs, Ohio’s Republican Governor is proposing a 64% increase in their gas tax. Connecticut’s Democratic Governor aims to introduce tolls on three interstates and one state road. At home, we ignore state and local commissions that call for performance tolling, congestion pricing, VMT taxes, and parking fees that would make driving alone less desirable and would also fund our roads and public transit.

If fares must increase, then the MBTA must rethink the stagnant fare structure—waiting until AFC 2.0 is unacceptable. First, the MBTA must offer off-peak fares for commuter rail. I reverse commute to Lowell and buy a monthly Zone 6 pass. The proposed 6.9% increase in Zone 6 fares would result in me spending $4,080 per year on the same pass. The MBTA has a campaign to fill near-empty trains and increase the number of reverse commuters. Yet, few people would pay over $4,000 per year when an annual parking pass for a Lowell garage is one-quarter the price and the interstates are “free.”

Under the proposed fares, four friends traveling from Lowell to Boston by rail for a game or show would owe $84 for the trip. More likely, they will split gas and the $50 parking fee at TD Garden or the $35 fee at the Government Center Garage. Discounted tickets for reverse commuters and off-peak, weekday travelers would change this calculation. The $10 weekend commuter rail pass has demonstrated that these types of lower fares can both fill empty trains and increase revenues.

The MBTA must also discount passes for low-income riders. Of the 26 Gateway Cities, 13 have commuter rail stations. Today, the median household income in these 13 cities lags the statewide median income. Rising fares put the train further out of reach for people who would most benefit from the access to higher-paying jobs. In Lowell, the annual cost of a monthly pass would rise to represent nearly nine percent of the median household’s income. Adding in the rent for a two-bedroom apartment, the combined cost for housing and transportation would consume over 47% of the median household’s income. This graph plots these values for all 13 Gateway Cities:

This analysis uses the 2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimate for Median Income and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fare Market Rents for a 2-bedroom apartment.

The analysis assumes that low-income riders buy the monthly pass. However, these riders are less likely to have such a large chunk of their income available upfront at the start of the month. More likely, these riders will pay the full fare each time they ride or these high fares will discourage them from using the system altogether.

A state that cares about equity would not stop at the doors of low-income drivers, but would remember the low-income transit riders. A state that wants to divert drivers to transit would not charge rush hour fares to ride near-empty trains. A state that views climate change to be an existential threat would not raise transit fares while lowering the costs of driving. The MBTA must cancel this proposed fare increase.



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