No More Steep MBTA Fare Increases? It Could Happen

The current transportation bill on the table would cap how much the cost to ride the T could go up.

In 2012, when the MBTA raised fares by 23 percent, the first fare increase in half a decade, the news was met by protests, complaints, and overall dissatisfaction from regular riders.

To make matters worse, the T promised that more fare increases would be coming down the road, and passengers were warned they would likely need to dig even deeper in their pockets in the coming years if they wanted to use the transit system.

But provisions outlined in the latest transportation billwhich has been bouncing back and forth between Governor Deval Patrick and the legislature— would put a cap on those increases, and bar the T from spiking the price to ride public transit like it did last year. According to the language in the latest transportation reform proposal on Beacon Hill, hikes like that would be limited to just 5 percent—if needed—and could only come up every two years as a means of bringing in new revenue to pay off the T’s lingering debt problems—a more modest approach to the money issue that is being called a “win” by transit advocacy groups.

Public Transit-Public Good, a state coalition of transit riders and workers, saluted the state legislature for “taking an important step towards adequate transit funding” and including three “equity amendments” in last week’s Transportation Finance Bill. The amendments, if passed, will “increase riders’ power to reshape their local transit systems for today’s economy and community needs,” the group said in a statement.

Riders and workers first proposed the amendements in a transit report released last fall, called Route to Our Future: Transit Solutions for Equity, Sustainability and Economic Growth in the Commonwealth. The amendments include adding daily riders to the transit board to help make big decisions for the MBTA.

One of the other highlights of the amendments would be to put a limit to the amount the T could raise fares, significantly avoiding hikes like the 23-percent average increase seen in 2012, and stopping any annual implementations, while requiring a report from MBTA officials prior to the proposal being put on the table, according to the language in the bill:

The authority shall not increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 per cent…. If [The T] proposes to increase the fare and fee structure by 5 per cent, [a required report] shall include an estimate of additional support from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund or other revenue and saving initiatives necessary to limit increases to not more than 5 per cent every 24 months.

But of course, due to the T’s shaky finances, there’s still more work to do, even if this version of the bill is approved, amendments and all. “We still need to address the fact that thousands have been priced out of public transit,” said Mea Johnson of the T Riders Union. “We want to ensure our youth have access to the opportunities they deserve. Riders, community and union leaders will continue to work for equity, affordability, and access.”

Erin O’Leary, member of Neighbor to Neighbor, a Massachusetts grassroots coalition aimed at creating a movement for economic and social justice, said despite a possible cap, many people will still be affected by any potential increases. “The MBTA is still laboring under unsustainable debt and huge maintenance backlogs. The revenue and savings targets mandated for transportation agencies are steep and will likely trigger future service cuts and fare increases,” she said. “Affordability and accessibility for all remains an unachieved goal.”

The fate of the overall bill is still in limbo, however, as Patrick and state leaders can’t seem to compromise on certain parts of the proposed legislation. Last week, Patrick sent back a version of the transportation funding plan.

According to a statement from the governor’s office, the bill recently passed by the legislature relies on revenue from the Western Turnpike tolls as part of the $805 million it guarantees to bring to transportation infrastructure. But under current law the tolls can come down in 2017, and the funds would dry up, and Patrick doesn’t want to take that risk.