MBTA board members want to pilot an income-based fare option for riders, but the state transportation secretary is raising concerns that key questions about funding and logistics remain unanswered.
The T has been studying the viability of means-tested tickets, where riders who qualify as low-income would only be asked to pay half or close to half price for single rides and for monthly subway and bus passes. During a Monday presentation on the proposal's feasibility, a majority of the five-person Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) spoke in favor of pushing forward with the option.
"This is a political question more than a work logistical difficulty question and I think that the FMCB has said this is something we want to do," board member Brian Lang said during the meeting. "We should expect our political leaders to support us in this by any means necessary."
An MBTA analysis presented at the meeting estimated that a means-tested fare program could cost roughly between $32 million and $63 million in foregone annual fare revenue.
The T already offers a handful of reduced-fare options aimed at specific groups. Riders 65 and older can use senior CharlieCards, and for about two years the T has offered a means-tested youth program through a partnership with cities and towns.
As they pushed for taking serious steps toward a widespread means-tested fare, some FMCB members expressed frustration that the youth pass program — which currently has about 4,000 enrollees and only one dedicated MBTA staffer overseeing it — did not receive more support from the transit agency.
"We are not investing to try and make this successful," said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the board's vice chair. "We can't keep talking about this for years and years. The thing is, the community has been patient."
The board did not take a vote on the topic, and MBTA staff have several more steps to take before any program could be launched, such as finding a partner to manage rider verification and eligibility.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, however, said several barriers remain to testing low-income fares for all riders rather than targeted youth or senior passes. She pointed to the T's own feasibility study, warning that staff concluded almost every aspect requires further investigation to resolve outstanding questions.
The secretary also cautioned that any program, even if partnered with an existing means-tested system such as affordable housing, would need fraud protections to avoid misuse of the discounts.
"You asked for a feasibility analysis," Pollack said. "The staff came back to you with an analysis that says, 'We have more work to do.'"
Pollack said attempts to pilot low-income fares without first determining how to pay for it would be unwise, saying any use of general budgetary funds to cover the foregone revenue would amount to "asking one group of riders to subsidize another group of riders."
The proposal drew support from a range of rider advocates, many of whom filled Monday's board meeting to push for a means-tested fare option. They argued that public transit is a vital service often priced out of reach for the region's lowest-income residents.
"The discounted fare pass is crucial to people's everyday life," said Mela Miles, director of the T Riders Union and director of transit-oriented development for Alternatives for Community and Environment. "As we delay and take a long time to come to the point of implementation of this policy change, people continue to miss doctor appointments and their quality of life diminishes. That's unconscionable."
Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Mass Senior Action Council, said an income-based fare would give much-needed relief to the more than 1 million senior citizens in Massachusetts, many of whom are unable to pay for their basic needs.
She argued specifically for lower fares on the RIDE, the T's paratransit service.
"It's only a small percentage of seniors that depend on paratransit, but for those that do depend on the service, it is a lifeline," she said.
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