A pandemic-inspired MBTA commuter rail ticket option aimed at workers with hybrid schedules would become permanent under a new proposal that would also slash the price of a single-day unlimited bus and subway pass.
The suite of fare changes MBTA officials presented Thursday at a committee meeting would also allow riders to make more transfers without incurring additional costs and offer additional options for the subset of commuters who qualify for reduced fares.
All of the proposed fare updates are subject to public comment in the coming weeks and would need approval from the agency's board of directors, which will likely vote on the matters at a March 24 meeting. If adopted, most of the changes would take effect July 1.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the changes would improve equity for riders across demographic groups and prepare the agency for technology changes that will arrive as an automated fare collection system comes online over the next few years.
"If approved by the MBTA's Board in March, these proposals will allow the T to continue to best meet the needs of riders through incremental fare improvements that reflect how they travel now and in the future, while minimizing revenue implications in this time of continued uncertainty," Poftak said.
The proposal would make permanent the commuter rail "FlexPass" mTicket pilot program launched in June 2020. That program offers five days of unlimited commuter rail travel within a 30-day period at a 10 percent discount compared to standard tickets. The program is aimed at workers whose commuting patterns changed due to the pandemic and the rise of remote work.
T officials suggested lowering the cost of a single-day LinkPass — which offers unlimited local bus, subway, Silver Line, commuter rail Zone 1A and Charlestown Ferry service — from $12.75 to $11.
The MBTA offers reduced fares to people with disabilities and Medicare cardholders, seniors ages 65 and older, middle and high school students at schools enrolled in the Student Pass Program, and low-income young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
The changes include three new options for the riders who currently qualify for reduced fares: launching a seven-day unlimited LinkPass for $10, less than half the $22.50 cost for a traditional seven-day pass; offering monthly passes on the commuter rail, ferries and express buses for about 50 percent of full price; and allowing use of reduced-fare LinkPasses within the commuter rail's Zone 1A and the Charlestown Ferry.
While agency officials will push their new plan to make more ticket types available for reduced-fare riders, they are not seeking to change eligibility criteria or expand the pool of people who can access those options.
Lawmakers and transportation advocates have been ramping up pressure on the T to expand reduced-fare options, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic that wrought disproportionate damage on low-income areas and communities of color.
At the same time, calls have been growing for public transit to move away from reliance on fares altogether, with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu making the push for fare-free options a centerpiece of her campaign.
Ridership dropped sharply early in the pandemic and remains well below pre-COVID levels after slow but steady recovery. In December, Poftak told the agency's board that the number of riders hovered between 65 percent and 70 percent of February 2020 levels for bus routes, between 45 percent and 50 percent for subway and commuter rail lines, and between 35 and 40 percent for ferries. The T has been able to offset its plunge in revenues from fares with the arrival of substantial federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Another portion of the fare plan would allow riders to make additional transfers on a single tap without paying again. Under current policy, most travelers can make one transfer between buses and subways and can transfer twice only if they go from a bus route to the subway back to another bus route. The new plan would allow second transfers in any combination between local and express buses and subways.
MBTA staff presented the proposal Thursday morning to the agency's Audit and Finance Subcommittee ahead of a full board meeting scheduled for Jan. 27.
Officials plan a virtual public meeting at 6 p.m. on Feb. 10 and another public hearing at 6 p.m. on Feb. 17 to discuss the proposed fare changes. Online public comment will be accepted through March 3.