State senators on Thursday slammed the MBTA's rollout of proposed fare hikes, arguing that outreach about the increases was insufficient and that the transit authority is letting millions of dollars in existing fares go uncollected.
The criticism, including jabs from Senate budget chief Michael Rodrigues, came four days before the MBTA Board is scheduled to discuss and possibly vote on the fare plan, which averages increases of about 6.3 percent, and three days after a member of that board called for alternative sources of new transportation revenue.
The fare hikes are designed to raise $32 million per year for the MBTA, whose budget is nearing $2.1 billion.
During discussion of a mid-year spending bill, senators offered amendments that would require additional public hearings when fare hikes are proposed, an independent audit of the MBTA's retirement fund, and a study of what they suggested are "millions of dollars" in uncollected fare revenues due to fare evasion.
"It is not fair to raise the fares on those riders of the MBTA, utilizers of the MBTA, where there are hundreds if not thousands of people who are just avoiding the fares altogether," said Rodrigues, chair of the Ways and Means Committee. "We are losing out on all that revenue."
In 2016, estimates from the MBTA and Keolis, which operates the commuter rail system, put the total cost of evaded fares on both commuter rail and on the T's subway as high as $42 million per year.
"At the same time that they're asking my constituents to pay a higher rate for going back and forth to Boston, they're letting millions of dollars slip through their hands that could easily have covered the expenses that they're asking us to pay for," said Sen. Michael Moore of Millbury.
All three transit-related amendments were either withdrawn or rejected Thursday, but Rodrigues said Senate Committee on Transportation Co-chair Sen. Joseph Boncore will conduct formal oversight hearings on the topic in the coming months that will explore fare evasion and the MBTA processes associated with raising fares.
Rodrigues pointed to "quite a bit of distress" among senators about how MBTA public meetings on the fare hikes unfolded. Sen. Moore, who represents parts of Worcester, said the county's delegation had to send a letter explicitly requesting a hearing before the authority scheduled one in his city.
When the Wednesday night meeting arrived, attendees found it "ridiculous and outrageous," Moore said.
"The hearing wasn't a hearing," he said. "There was no formal presentation. It was representatives from the T there, the general manager (Steve Poftak) was there, walking around talking to people, saying, 'If you have any complaints, write it on a notecard.'"
MBTA officials apologized for miscommunication about the Worcester meeting, noting their goal was to have an open-house format in as many communities as realistically possible. The authority "greatly appreciates" feedback from the public and from elected officials, according to spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
"Because it would be challenging to hold a public meeting in each of the 175 communities that comprise the MBTA service district, the MBTA makes every effort to schedule meetings in locations central to the areas served by the T’s multiple modes of service," Pesaturo said in an email.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr pitched an unsuccessful amendment to mandate an audit of the MBTA's retirement fund before any fare hike could take effect. Because the fund has more employees receiving benefits than paying into it, he said, the liability is an "unaddressed crisis."
The fund has been a source of concern among T officials, despite the union representing employees pushing back that such worries are overblown. Last year, the fund posted a negative return for the first time since 2011 and paid out $100 million more than it collected, prompting MBTA Board Chair Joseph Aiello to demand leaders "accelerate" their search for a solution.
"Many of us would argue that a fare increase should come only as a last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted," Tarr said. "But the question is: should a fare increase move forward when you have a gap that is growing, a gap that will continue to undermine not only the viability of this pension system, but the viability of our public transit system?"
After nine public hearings and more than 2,500 comments, the FMCB appears poised to vote on the fare hikes on Monday. Members have not yet indicated their final stances, but tensions have been showing in recent days.
At a meeting this week, board member Brian Lang said relying solely on commuters to increase revenues was "completely wrongheaded." He said lawmakers should "grow a little bit of courage" and pursue an increase in the gas tax, higher fees on rideshare services or congestion-priced tolls. Later in the week, fellow board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt offered a similar suggestion.
Moore described the MBTA as a "recurring nightmare" during his tenure, recalling the passage of two MBTA bailout bills and legislation placing the authority under a control board. Moore said constituents who are consistently late for work because their trains are late, and said some constituents buy daily rather than monthly passes because "a good portion of the time they don't collect the fare."
"Another individual talks about how dirty the trains are," Moore said. "Another one talks about how there are people smoking bongs on the train, and drinking, and there's no enforcement."
Many riders were not asked to pay to take commuter rail trains to Boston for the New England Patriots victory parade on Feb. 5. Officials said about double a typical weekday's ridership used the commuter rail that day, setting a record. However, Keolis and MBTA officials did not provide figures when asked for fare revenue numbers associated with the parade travel.
While there are proposals pending, Democratic legislative leaders do not appear to be coalescing around a revenue bill for transportation this year, although lawmakers are hearing concerns on a regular basis from constituents over both MBTA service levels and traffic congestion.