The Next MBTA Fare Hike Depends on an Argument of Semantics

The Baker administration's interpretation of the 2013 fare cap's language may seem petty, but the implications could be huge.

Photo by Olga Khvan

Photo by Olga Khvan

The State Legislature enacted a cap on public transit fares two years ago, back before the snowiest winter in Boston’s long, generally snowy history crippled an already frail MBTA. Though it only took a couple months of Kafkaesque commutes, people were finally talking about the state’s crumbling infrastructure and what it will take to fix it—in broad strokes, money.

Fast-forward to this week, and state officials and transportation activists are embroiled in a debate over the “legislative intent” of that fare cap, which reads: “The authority shall not increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 per cent.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack says that means MBTA fares may increase by no more than 10 percent every two years. Activists, like Transportation for Massachusetts policy director Charlie Ticotsky, disagree with this interpretation of two 5-percent raises every two years, and argue that the word “annual” was only added during secretive, closed-door conference committee negotiations. Ticotsky also points to another section of the law, which makes mention of efforts “necessary to limit increases to not more than 5 per cent every 24 months,” State House News Service reports.

So, which is it?

The Baker administration’s interpretation of the cap’s language is a break from the preceding Patrick administration’s. Responding to a State House News Service inquiry in 2013, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email, “[T]he MBTA cannot raise fares more than 5% or more often than every two years.” On Monday, Pesaturo told SHNS he was referring to the annual cap: “My email said nothing about the level of an increase every two years.”

Pollack told reporters a 5-percent increase as been included in budget plans as a “working number,” subject to change following a public process. Fares can be increased as early as next July.