T fares to rise 9% as board votes for highest option

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/07/t-fares-to-rise-9-as-board-votes-for-highest-option/

BOSTON – Over the objections of protesters, the board that oversees the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority voted to boost fares by an average of about 9 percent, effective July 1.

Meeting Monday afternoon, members of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board – appointed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker – voted amid the chants of angry protesters who opposed the fare hikes. The increases are expected to generate $42 million in additional revenue in fiscal 2017.

The increase was at the higher end of options for increases reviewed by the board.

The Conservation Law Foundation said the decision “goes against the tide of overwhelming public opinion, organized protest, and strident opposition from CLF.”

The MBTA in 2012 approved an overall increase in fares of 23 percent, which followed fare hikes in 2007, 2004 and 2000.

The fare package approved Monday includes a slight reduction in the cash fare for bus trips. The current fare of $2.10 will go down to $2 under the proposal adopted unanimously. Bus fares with a Charlie card will increase from $1.60 to $1.70.

Monthly passes for students and seniors will increase to $30, a smaller hike than either of the two options put on the table in January. Student passes are currently $26 per month and senior passes are $29.

Users of the Ride, a scheduled door-to-door paratransit service, will experience a 5 percent increase in fares.

For other riders the hikes will be more significant. A bus-subway pass price will increase to $84.50 per month, a $9.50 hike. Zone 8 monthly passes on the commuter rail will shoot up $33 to $363.

The T’s oversight board also voted to launch a pilot program offering monthly student passes year-round rather than the current pass available only during the school year.

MBTA officials plan to investigate whether that new program could start this summer or would have to wait until school starts in September. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the program is a pilot so T officials can assess whether the cards are used by students as opposed to falling into the hands of others.

Board member Brian Lang made several motions that were adopted by the board to lessen the hikes from previously floated proposals and, in the case of cash bus fares, to lower them. One other measure adopted by the board will allow transit commuters to use a transfer so that a single fare can cover a trip from a bus to subway and then to another bus.

“There are many poor, working class folks who get to work every day – take a bus, rapid transit and then another bus,” Lang said over protesters’ chants of “fight the hike.”

The board also adopted a resolution recommending that no further fare hikes take place until January 2019, two months after the next statewide elections and six months beyond what would be allowable under a statute that limits fare increases to every two years.

On a motion by board member Lisa Calise, the revenues raised by the fare increases will go into a “lockbox” fund to be used only for service improvements. The board also voted to stock that fund with the $25 million in anticipated surplus in the current year’s budget.

“The way service will improve is by investing in the system,” Pollack said. Pollack said the vote Monday would guarantee the dollars raised by the fare increase would go toward improving the aging system so that MBTA staff “could not revert to spending them on operating costs that were not being appropriately managed.”

Gov. Baker said one of the “major criteria” for reforms identified last year was to get the fare recovery ratio to 40 percent, which he said would be consistent with other public transit systems around the country.

“I think the folks at the Fiscal and Management Control Board have demonstrated a pretty strong commitment to doing something about operating expenses. So far the MBTA’s operating growth year over year has basically been zero after literally 15 years of operating expenses going up at least five percent a year every year, and I think this is also part of the plan with respect to dealing with the issues at the T,” Baker said Monday afternoon.

The MBTA has sought to address its structural deficit by reducing operating expenses and increasing own-source revenue such as advertising dollars. The governor said he was also “pleased” that it appears the MBTA will spend about $750 million to improve the system’s core infrastructure.

MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve said T officials would also analyze the commuter rail zones after complaints from some riders that the current system is unfair in some instances.

Nearly an hour into the discussion, protester Caroline Casey interrupted the proceedings with a bullhorn.

“This is a people’s takeover. We will not allow you to hike fares and cut service on the backs of low-income riders, youth, seniors and people with disabilities,” Casey shouted into the bullhorn, as other protesters assembled between the audience and the board.

The control board recessed and then returned to the meeting, conducting votes amid chants of, “This board is corrupt.”

“If you would listen, we just made further cutbacks” to the proposed fare hikes, Lang said at one point. His comments were greeted with chants of, “Shame on you.”

“The great irony here is that what the control board was trying to do, but the very angry people in the room could not hear, was say: ‘We hear you.’ We’re going to mitigate the effects on our most vulnerable passengers, and we’re going to guarantee you that we’re only raising these fares to improve your service,” said Pollack, who said the interruption was a “pity” because others could not hear what actions the board was taking.

Other criticisms were delivered in more measured tones.

“Today’s decision is disappointing,” said Rafael Mares, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice program. “As a result of today’s fare increase, there will be people who will miss work opportunities and important social service appointments. There will be students who cannot afford to get to school. And there will be riders who choose to drive instead, adding to our region’s traffic problem and further polluting our air.”

In January the board advanced two proposals recommending fare increases averaging 6.7 percent and 9.7 percent and in their discussion board members indicated they would work off a modified version of the larger hike proposal.

The larger fare hike was estimated to raise $49.4 million, so the modifications adopted by the control board represent a roughly $7.4 million reduction in the amount of new revenue estimated to be generated by the higher fares.

Police were on scene during the protest, but did not attempt to remove the protesters from the room. Pollack addressed members of the news media in a different part of the Transportation Building after the protesters had paraded out chanting, “We’ll be back.”

Written by Andy Metzger