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What Baker’s MBTA Legislation Might Mean For Fares

People walk by the Green Line along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in this 2008 file photo. (Lisa Poole/AP)
People walk by the Green Line along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in this 2008 file photo. (Lisa Poole/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

One of the many provisions in Gov. Charlie Baker's new legislation to overhaul the MBTA calls for lifting the cap on fare increases. While it's not the major part of Baker's proposal — most attention has focused on the creation of a fiscal control board to oversee the transit system — the fare cap provision would allow for the possibility of higher fares for riders.

But, the administration has "absolutely no immediate plans to raise fares," Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said in a phone interview.

Buckley said lifting the cap on fares increases is a way to give the MBTA more flexibility in terms of fare pricing and operations.

"A provision in this bill to lift the cap is not the same thing as raising fares," Buckley said. "With the current cap in place it would prohibit the MBTA from making decisions about potentially implementing a more dynamic fare structure and it really does handcuff the organization from making smart decisions about how to operate the system effectively."

Other transit systems, such as the Metro in Washington, D.C., and BART in San Francisco, have fares that vary depending on the distance a rider travels. Some cities, including D.C., also have increased fares during peak hours.

Under legislation passed in 2013, the MBTA can implement fare increases up to 5 percent every two years.

And some say the case has not been fully made for Baker’s provision to lift this existing cap on fares.

"It’s not enough to say we have no present plans to raise fares," said Democratic Rep. Bill Straus, a co-chair of the Joint Transportation Committee. "If that’s the case why ask for elimination of the cap at all?"

Straus believes the 2013 legislation already provides "a great deal of flexibility" to increase fares. He said the current law has a measured approach to raising fares by making it part of the revenue discussion every two years, while he believes Baker's legislation would create a sort of "open season" in terms of the timing and amount of any potential hike.

Baker's proposed legislation directly follows recommendations made by an advisory panel he created in February to examine the T after the transit system struggled mightily during a series of major snowstorms.

"The commonwealth simply cannot afford another winter like that and this legislation sets in motion significant reforms to deliver accountability, reliability as well as a world-class transportation system that people who ride the T truly deserve," Buckley said.

In its report, released two weeks ago, the panel said MBTA fares were "underpriced" compared to other major U.S. transit systems, and it called for new legislation to eliminate current fare restrictions.

Straus agrees MBTA fares (as a percentage of the revenues or operations) should match peer transit systems, but believes the current law will do that over time. He said the fare cap also acts as a “restraint” for T management and forces the transit agency to find more efficient ways to operate.

“Ironically, the governor’s proposal to remove the cap takes some of that internal reform pressure off of the MBTA management because they can always send the bill to the riders,” Straus said.

Along the B branch of the Green Line Thursday, several riders were not thrilled with the prospect of possibly paying more for the T.

"There has to be a drastic improvement in the service, otherwise I think it’s going to be very upsetting to a lot of people if the fares increase but nothing changes," said Janny Joo, a Boston University graduate student.

Joo's sentiments are backed up by a WBUR poll released earlier this month, which found 61 percent of Boston area voters would support raising fares if the MBTA would "significantly improve service."

Also waiting on the Green Line was Kirk Donovan, 29, who recently moved to the Boston area and has lived in Copenhagen. He said while the fares may have been higher, the service in Copenhagen was faster.

"In other places you seem to get more from the transit system [and] better service," said Donovan, who grew up in Ithaca, New York, and now works for a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge.

It may be some time before any possible major fare hike is part of the Beacon Hill discussion, as Baker's bill will now go through the legislative process. The governor hopes the Legislature will act on his proposal sometime this summer, Buckley said. The House has referred the bill to the Joint Transportation Committee and the Senate will do the same early next week, according to Straus.

And the public will eventually get a chance to weigh in on lifting the cap on T fare increases, as well as the many other provisions in Baker's legislation. The transportation committee is looking to schedule public hearings as soon as possible and move Baker's bill along, Straus said. The committee will also meet with members of the advisory panel on Monday to discuss how they developed the recommendations in their report.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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