T fare hike scenarios eyed by transit agency

Printed from: http://newbostonpost.com/2016/01/04/t-fare-hike-scenarios-eyed-by-transit-agency/

BOSTON – The agency that runs Boston’s public transit services is eyeing fare hikes that could punch a hundred-dollar hole in the pockets of regular subway riders over the course of a year, a move one transit advocate likened to “punishing the victim” following recent service failures.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Fiscal and Management Control Board elected on Monday to advance for public comment two fare-hike scenarios that would raise fares an average of about 5 percent or 10 percent starting in July.

In both scenarios, bus and subway pass-holders would see their discount erode as the price hikes for those products would outpace increases to single-ride fares.

“We have very deeply discounted passes, more than other big city transit systems. Our passes are a great deal and we want them to stay a good deal,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters.

The fare hike proposals arrive close to the anniversary of the state temporarily shutting down MBTA service late last January, the prelude to a bitter cold and snow spell that saw service grind to a halt at times on several stretches of track.

“These two options for fare increases that were proposed today are punishing the victim. We’ve gone through a winter where people didn’t have any service,” Rafael Mares, vice president and director of Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, told reporters. He said, “The last time tolls were increased on one of our bridges or tunnels was in 2004. During this time period the MBTA fares were increased four times. This would be a fifth time.”

After a meeting with the governor, legislative leaders also voiced caution on fare hikes.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said fare increases should be the “last avenue” considered, pointing to advertising and real estate sales as other potential revenue sources that should be considered.

“I think when it comes to fare increases, we ought to hold off and let’s see some of the other options that are out there,” DeLeo told reporters.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Sen. Tom McGee, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, have suggested fare increases should be limited to no more than 5 percent every two years. The Baker administration’s reading of the 2013 law, which jibes with McGee’s House co-chairman on the committee, allows for 10 percent hikes every two years. The last fare hike was a 5 percent increase in 2014.

Rosenberg said that while fare increases could provide tens of millions of dollars, “the problems are in the billions,” and more money would still need to be found.

“We’re concerned that the higher you drive the rates, the more people get off the trains and off the buses back onto the roads, so everybody loses in that scenario,” Rosenberg said. “So you have to proceed with extreme caution in this regard, and there is no way that we’re going to be able to fix all the problems at the T on the basis of fare increases.”

Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday said it is important the fares go to “improve the rider experience,” and speaking for those whose tax dollars finance a transit agency they don’t use, he said, “We should never forget most people in Massachusetts who don’t ride the T write a billion dollar check every year to support the T, and we need to keep their interests in mind as we have this conversation as well.”

Pollack said about 40 percent of the T’s operating costs are covered by fares, which she said is “on the low end” for transit agencies of similar size, and the 2013 legislation that raised gas and tobacco taxes pushed the T to increase the percentage of service financed by fares.

When the cost of monthly passes is factored in, fares would rise 6.7 percent under one scenario and 9.7 percent under the other. The more expensive scenario would generate $49.4 million in additional money from riders while the cheaper scenario would boost fare revenues by $33.2 million.

The MBTA has a roughly $2 billion budget.

With a projected $242 million budget shortfall in fiscal 2017, the two fare proposals advanced by the control board would contribute $10 million to $26 million toward closing that gap.

“We’re probably going to need our riders to help out in closing the budget gap,” said Pollack, who said she didn’t prefer one fare hike scenario over the other. The priciest scenario for riders would hike the cost of a bus or subway ride by 15 cents.

The proposals would largely leave monthly pass discounts in place for commuter rail riders, who often pay much more than the $75 subway pass and ride the train twice a day only on workdays.

The cost of a monthly Link Pass for the bus and subway would rise to $82.50 or $84.50 under the scenarios, meaning a regular rider could pay $90 or $114 more per year.

Mares said he preferred one of the two other options eliminated on Monday by the control board, which would have hiked fares an average of 4.5 percent and would preserve the level of discount for monthly passes.

The MBTA’s total menu of cost-controls, increased ad revenue and service-reductions combined with the most expensive fare hike scenario, add up to $267 million, more than enough to cover the gap.

“There’s a path to balancing the budget,” MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve told reporters.

In addition to 10 public comment hearings, riders will have the opportunity to check the effect of the fare scenarios online, Pollack said. She said there are “over 180 different fares and discounts offered by the MBTA.”

In an effort to “maintain access for low-income riders,” T officials considered changing pricing depending on the time of day – which would require a technological upgrade – as well as potentially making the system free from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., though officials estimated the system would lose out on $30 million annually if that was implemented.

T officials initially presented four scenarios to the control board, including two that did not seek to reduce the discount for bus and subway passes. Control board members determined so many options could confuse people.

“I think this is much too complex,” said Brian Lang, a member of the control board.

The control board is expected to vote in March to allow the fare gates to be programmed for a change that would go into effect July 1.

MBTA Director of Operations Analysis Brian Kane said the automated fare gates need a few months lead time before the new fares go into effect.

Written by Andy Metzger with reporting by Katie Lannan