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App For That? Transportation Officials Review Ways To Boost MBTA Ridership

Eliminating the use of cash on MBTA buses and introducing the commuter rail app to other public transit lines are strategies under consideration by state officials contemplating ways to boost ridership on the heels of steady fare increases in recent years.

Eliminating cash on board the bus would improve on-time performance and reduce conflicts between bus operators and passengers, according to a presentation delivered Tuesday to members of the board of directors for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Expanding the use of the app into the transit lines would improve operations and customer convenience, according to the presentation. On the commuter rail and ferry lines, the mobile application has pulled in just under $40 million since November 2012, MassDOT said.

Distance and time-based pricing on the T is another strategy under review, among others. All potential moves would take years to implement, according to the presentation.

Board chairman John Jenkins said many riders appear to be city dwellers and the elderly.

"You eliminate cash, that's how they roll," he said. "They're not rolling with credit cards . . . So we have to be careful that we don't hurt our best customer."

"Your point is well taken," said Subhash Mundle, a transportation consultant and fare policy expert who made the presentation with Ted Basta, the MBTA's chief of strategic business initiatives.

Mundle noted that to his knowledge, no medium to large systems have been able to completely move away from cash.

The presentation was part of a discussion of strategies to increase ridership and pull in more revenue for the debt-saddled transit agency. The T, which has an eight-year-old automatic fare collection system, took in $577 million in passenger revenue in fiscal year 2014.

There were no new formal proposals to raise fares presented, though Mundle told the board, "I'm sure we will consider doing it in the future."

Asked after the presentation if the board will consider raising fares next year, Jenkins said he will wait to hear future analysis and recommendations from state transportation officials.

Under 2013 transportation finance legislation that increased gas and tobacco taxes to pay for investments, the MBTA cannot increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 percent.

Hoping to bring in an additional $20 million to $24 million in revenue, the MassDOT board of directors voted to increase fares by an average of 5 percent in May 2014.

But the increase was also projected to lead to a 1 percent dip in ridership.

Andrew Whittle, a professor at MIT and a member of the MassDOT board, pointed to a chart in the presentation, saying overall total ridership appears to not have significantly changed over the last decade.

"Is that a correct statement?" he asked Mundle.

Mundle acknowledged ridership looks "very flat."

"I'm actually stunned about this," Whittle said.

The fifth largest transit system in the country, the MBTA annually makes around 400 million trips, according to the agency.

"That is something we really have to address," Whittle said, adding that the MBTA has not "mastered a mechanism" for increasing ridership as the region has seen an increase in population and the MBTA introduced the CharlieCard, a plastic card which stores value for fare use.

Mundle said the figures are reflective of the fact that the MBTA system is at capacity.

Jenkins, the board's chair, asked if that means riders are being left on the street.

Basta, the MBTA's chief of strategic business initiatives, said, "In many cases during peak, we're at crushloads."

"So what do we do about increasing ridership?" Whittle asked.

Unless the system sees an expansion, such as additional buses and rail cars, "that's not going to happen," Basta said.

"If we need more buses, let's buy more buses," Jenkins said.

"We have no more places to store them," Basta said.

Basta added that the MBTA is not a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week system, and that should be part of the discussion, since half a million riders have elected to take the MBTA's pilot late night service. The program extends the time of the last train to 2:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

"We can support that but the infrastructure would have to be increased as well," he said of a system that operates longer hours. "There's no free lunch here."

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