With new MBTA fare system, popular 'passback' payments will no longer be allowed

A CharlieTicket is displayed. (Chitose Suzuki/AP)
A CharlieTicket is displayed. (Chitose Suzuki/AP)

There's a ritual familiar to most Boston-area commuters who have ever tried to take parents, high school friends or other out-of-town visitors along for a ride on the T: tap your CharlieCard to board or get through a fare gate, then hand it backward one or two or three more times so your guests can follow.

And as the MBTA's new fare collection system rolls out over the next few years, that practice might become a thing of the past.

MBTA officials are seeking to require every single rider to carry their own proof of payment, a change that would no longer allow "passbacks" that some groups use today to charge multiple fares to a single CharlieCard.

Outlining the proposal on Thursday, MBTA staff said they would be "unable" to continue allowing passbacks under a new fare payment model in the works.

"Unfortunately, this is popular with some folks, but is a tradeoff with the new system," MBTA Director of Fare Policy and Analytics Steven Povich told the T board's audit and finance subcommittee. "We're excited about many of the benefits. This is one of the things that will be going away."

The incoming system, which the T refers to as its "Fare Transformation" project, will allow passengers to board buses and above-ground trolleys via all doors rather than just the front doors near the farebox.

Because of that, Povich said, each rider will need to have their own way to prove they paid the fare.

The transformed fare payment system will also allow commuters to pay with a contactless credit card or a phone, which Povich said would create complications for using a single stored value CharlieCard to cover multiple riders.

Another passback complication that Povich flagged is potential "pricing errors" on the commuter rail.

For now, tapping on for multiple riders with one pass remains legitimate across much of the MBTA so long as the card has enough value to cover each person pending approval and implementation of the updated policy.

The agency's leaders are also pushing to impose a $3 fee to acquire a new standard, temporary or mobile CharlieCard. That's down from the $5 cost MBTA staff originally proposed, drawing pushback from riders and advocates, and is a significant departure from the current policy of offering CharlieCards in select locations for free.

Paying with a contactless credit card or a mobile wallet such as Apple Pay would not be subject to the flat fee. Riders who qualify for reduced-fare programs, such as seniors ages 65 and older, and those purchasing single-day unlimited LinkPasses would be exempt from the $3 charge for a card.

Povich said the $3 up-front charge would help cover the $1.50 cost to produce each physical new CharlieCard, and it also effectively pre-pays for a new functionality designed to give passengers "one more trip."

The proposed new system would allow riders who have a balance too low to pay a trip to tap onto a bus or train regardless, which Povich said aims to avoid commuters getting stranded at a station that does not have a fare machine or because they do not have cash to cover the difference.

Asked about riders taking repeat trips on an empty card, officials said they are still nailing down details but would not allow exploitation of the option.

"This has been well thought-about," said MBTA Assistant General Manager of Policy and Transit Planning Lynsey Heffernan. "One trip means one trip, not ten."

"The precise parameters are still in the works, but the fact that you can go negative does not mean you can go infinitely negative," Povich added. "There are limits to how negative, and the limits are intended to be one trip, basically, of value."

Officials are crafting a plan to distribute more than 300,000 free CharlieCards in low-income areas and communities of color to address equity concerns, Povich said.

Under the latest proposal, the T would also make bulk limited-use cards available for $1 each, aimed at group sales for conferences and other large-scale events, and offer replacement CharlieCards for $1.50 starting at the end of 2024.

The T will run a public comment period through the end of March soliciting feedback on the change and other alterations to how riders pay for their trips. The full MBTA Board will be asked to vote on the proposals in April.

If approved, the method-of-payment changes would not hit until the overhauled fare system is in place. Officials did not offer even a ballpark date during Thursday's meeting, and the T has previously targeted a gradual rollout of new payment systems through 2024.

"These various changes would go into effect once we commence revenue service with Fare Transformation," Heffernan told the subcommittee. "That is not in the near term, but we are trying to set up some really important policy decisions."



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