Introduction

This post floats a proposal for across-the-board transit fare cuts funded by tax increases. My considered bottom line about the proposal appears further below. Click here to jump to the bottom line.

Proposal

Is now the time to sharply cut transit fares in Massachusetts? T fares have risen much faster than inflation, more than doubling since 2003.

Lower fares would result in more riders. More riders means less cars on the road which is good for everyone. Transit already carries a big share of the traffic on the most common routes into the core of the Boston area — approximately 40% region-wide. Even a small shift to transit could make a big difference in congestion.

I’m not suggesting that the MBTA and other transit authorities should run with less money. We are in the middle of a sustained effort to provide better quality transit service and that costs money.

Statewide, transit authorities raise approximately $800 million per year from their riders through fares. To cut fares, the legislature would need to identify annually recurring funds and permanently pledge them to the MBTA and other regional transit authorities. The pledge would be combined with a legal mandate that the funds be used to replace fare revenue. The transit authorities could then make decisions as to how specifically to allocate the reductions. The reductions would be permanent in the sense that future increases would be limited by existing law.

For example, a 9 cent per gallon gas tax increase and a one dollar per ride charge to Uber/Lyft users would raise a little less than $400 million. This should be enough to cut transit fares in half statewide. Likely, it would be a bit more than enough given that ridership would increase and generate additional revenue.

Drivers in western Massachusetts generally drive further each day than Boston drivers and do not want to subsidize the Boston region with gas tax payments. The new collections should be returned to the regions that they are collected from to assure geographic equity. If, within a region, the collections exceed the amount necessary to eliminate transit fares, the excess should be returned to cities and towns in the region for road improvement.

How ridership changes in response to fare changes is a subject of extensive empirical research, locally, nationally and internationally. For some riders on some routes, time savings are a more important consideration than fares. That tends to be most true for rail and subway routes that can move much faster than road traffic. Except when they benefit from dedicated lanes, buses tend to move more slowly than traffic because they stop frequently. Bus ridership is more sensitive to price changes than rail ridership.

Analysis of past fare changes in the Boston region shows roughly a .15 “elasticity of demand” ratio. In other words, a 10% fare increase would yield a 1.5% ridership loss. A 50% fare decrease would be outside of the historical range of experience, but if the .15 ratio held, we could expect an overall ridership increase of something like 7.5%. On the other hand, a fare decision of that magnitude would send a strong message of support for transit ridership and might lead to a larger increase in usage.

A careful analysis would need to be done by each transit authority about how to allocate the fare decrease to achieve manageable ridership increases. The authorities would have to think carefully about fare equity and how the changes affect lower income riders. An across-the-board even decrease would be easy to explain and would probably pass equity muster, but there are other possibilities.

For example, the MBTA could completely eliminate fares for local buses while making a more modest adjustment for the subway. This would benefit some of the lowest income transit users. It would have the additional benefit for both riders and drivers that buses would not be pausing in traffic while riders pay their fares. It might also greatly simplify the implementation of any new fare technology, although it would mean foregoing the ridership data provided by collections.

There is also a good case for targeting commuter rail fares. Commuter rail fares are distance based, so that commuting from endpoints like Worcester and Lowell can cost several hundred dollars per month. On the Worcester line in particular, we need to drive ridership up in advance of the disruptions likely to be caused on the MassPike by the Allston interchange construction.

As much as we struggle to provide more affordable housing, people of modest income find themselves increasingly priced out of the urban core. We need to make it economically feasible for them to commute to the high employment core of the region or they will be deprived not only of their preferred housing but of employment.

Reader Reaction Poll Results

We should raise taxes to cut transit fares as outlined above.

Agree (N=236)59.3%
Disagree (N=80)20.6%
Not sure or don’t like the question as framed (N=82)20.1%
Readers responding within 48 hours (N=398)100.0%

A gas tax increase of 9 cents combined with an Uber/Lyft fee increase of $1 would suffice to cut all bus, subway and commuter rail fares in half all across the state.

Insights from Comments

Thanks to the almost 400 people who chose to submit their quick reaction to the proposal for a broad-based fare cut funded by tax increases and especially to the over 100 who chose to comment in more detail below. I have read all of the comments through October 13.

The overall reaction to the proposal among my readers was supportive, but the critical input was also helpful and I’d like to summarize my own thinking at this point. There are several reasons to like the proposal of a broad fare cut, but they all need to be examined and qualified. A fare cut targeted to low-income riders may make more sense.

First, a fare cut seems to speak to equity. We tend to think of transit users as having more modest incomes, and certainly, the most wealthy usually have more comfortable options. However, areas well-served by transit tend to become more desirable and expensive. Only 28.8% of all MBTA users actually qualify as low-income. See Table 7. from the CTPS analysis of the most recent MBTA fare increase analysis. (Low income is defined as below 60% of the median household income.) Lowering fares for all transit users is not a well-targeted method for supporting low-income households.

Moreover, lowering fares by raising the gas tax or the Uber/Lyft fee would burden many low-income households, many of whom have no access to transit. As more and more people of limited income are priced out of the low-household-mileage urban core into high-household-mileage suburbs, the gas tax falls more and more regressively on households. And it polls badly (opposed by 68%, even for funding better transit).

Second, a fare cut promises to reduce congestion — the more people that take public transit, the fewer cars on the road. This argument makes sense on its face, but I do not believe that it is compelling. Congestion is most frustrating at rush hour. People driving at rush hour are mostly employed, so mostly not at the lowest end of the income spectrum. They are sufficiently affluent that that they can afford to drive into the city and incur parking costs, so they are less likely to change their commuting behavior based on a fare cut: They are likely to be making decisions more based on time and comfort rather than money.

The modest shift of people out of vehicles onto transit as a result of fare cuts is unlikely to make a noticeable impact on congestion. To confirm this, consider one of the more favorable places for a high impact — the MassPike corridor, where commuter rail handles about 1/3 of the corridor’s rush hour volume. A crude computation suggests that a 50% fare cut would save less than a minute for drivers. More generally, on most other routes in the region, time savings would be fully diluted amidst traffic flows that do not align with transit.

Explanation of time saving estimate:

The CTPS fare analysis at Table 1 estimates a .1 demand elasticity for commuter rail pass holders and a .2 elasticity for cash purchasers. At rush hour, the elasticity of demand is likely to be towards the lower end, so using a .15 elasticity is an optimistic assumption at rush hour. If a 50% Worcester line fare cut led to a 7.5% rush hour ridership increase (.15 elasticity) and 80% of the new ridership was shifted from vehicles on the Pike, then rush hour vehicle volume on the road would go down by about 2 percentage points from 67% to 65% of the total corridor peak volume. If a 50% traffic reduction from peak is necessary to get down to free flow speeds and save 15 minutes in travel time (as is very roughly suggested by inspection of data in the congestion report at pages 19 and 26), then travel times would likely fall by 2%/(.5*67%) * 15, in other words less than 1 minute.

A third reason to like an across-the-board fare cut is that increasing transit ridership might reduce greenhouse gases. Again, this is compelling at first glance, but we have to keep in mind that most trips are well not served by transit. Statewide, the vast majority of the miles traveled in the state are traveled in passenger vehicles. Moving people on to transit is a very limited emissions reductions strategy — we have to electrify our passenger vehicle fleet. Further, there are many more cost-effective ways to reduce emissions than transit fare cuts, for example, subsidizing electric vehicles.

Explanation of carbon cost-effectiveness statement:

The following assumptions are all as favorable as possible to the carbon cost-effectiveness of fare cuts: (a) .2 elasticity of demand, evenly distributed across modes, so that a 50% fare cut results in a 10% increase in both ridership and passenger-miles traveled; (b) all of the passenger-miles traveled increase is converted from single-occupancy-vehicle use; (c)the transit power sources are 100% renewable and/or no service increase is required; (d) the vehicles replaced get only 15 miles to the gallon.

On these favorable assumptions, the annual cost of saving one passenger-mile of driving through T fare cuts is $1.60, so the annual cost of saving a gallon of gasoline is $24.00 (at 15 miles per gallon) per year or $2.72 per kg of CO2 (at 8.887 kg CO2/gallon).

By contrast, a $10,000 electric vehicle incentive that caused a driver to shift to a fully green electric vehicle that saved 500 gallons of gasoline per year over ten years would be a $2/gallon-saved expenditure for the public, or $0.22 per kg of CO2. Similarly, bringing insulation up to code in an older home is a one-time cost in the ballpark of $9 per therm of natural gas saved annually or $1.81 per kg of CO2 emission (at 5.3 kg CO2/therm) annually for the life of the house, roughly $0.09 per kg of CO2, assuming only a 20 year life. For another comparison, the Obama whitehouse economic advisors estimated the social cost of carbon in 2020 at $42/ metric ton of CO2, or $0.04 per kg of CO2.

Fourth, it seems likely that the modest ridership increases likely from a fare cut could be accommodated without additional service spending. A tighter squeeze is always possible, but at rush hour, most transit routes are heavily crowded already. While crowding is self-limiting, more crowding would hardly be desirable from the perspective of loyal riders.

Interim Conclusion

Many commenters responded with critiques of the MBTA’s service and management. While the service still needs improvement, I believe the current management is strong and has set the system on a course of long-term improvement that we will all begin to feel within a few more years. When we see strong increases in capacity on the Red and Orange Lines and the commuter rail, as we have good cause to expect in within two or three years, that may be a more appropriate time for broad-based fare cuts to attract ridership.

Better-targeted cuts still merit short-run consideration:

  • Following the release of an MIT study showing that fares limit limit mobility of low-income households, MBTA management committed to study a discount fare for low-income riders (see livestream of June 10, 2019 meeting at 55:50, July 22, 2019 meeting at 1:12:30 and full presentation at meeting of August 12, 2019 at 1:22:00). Completion of the MBTA’s study is expected later this year. This study may show the way to a more efficient and equitable fare cut that the legislature might want to support financially.
  • Fare discounts for low income commuter rail riders has a special appeal, as they would support transit oriented development in gateway cities. Table 7 of the recent fare analysis shows that 93.2% are not low income, so across the board commuter rail fare cuts are not appealing. Yet, it makes sense to consider connecting affordable housing in gateway cities to Boston jobs through discount fares for lower-income workers.
  • An alternative targeted approach to fare reduction which some are urging informally would be elimination of fares on buses. Bus fare elimination might simplify implementation of the new fare collection system and tend to benefit lower-income riders. It would also be very inexpensive, since (a) many bus trips also result in subway trips (no fare loss on those trips given existing transfer policy) and (b) fare recovery is generally low already on bus-only trips. Additionally, eliminating bus fares might accelerate buses by speeding boarding. A concern about bus fare elimination was raised by a commenter: we have to consider how we would manage the possibility that if the buses were free the buses would start to be heavily occupied by people who are not actually trying to get someplace. That might degrade service for riders who are using the service as intended. Additionally, since subways would not be discounted many lower-income riders might not actually benefit.

Resources

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

Join the Conversation

183 Comments

  1. If we are talking about an additional tax on incomes over 1 million dollars fine but I also want to see tolls go up on the southeast expressway , rt 93 and Storrow drive so everyone pays tolls going into Boston. Why should only the people who take the Mass Pike and Tobin Bridge pay a toll. I think the rates are fine – they are even lower than NYC and Montreal which have far better systems than Boston. We also need to look at expanding services and think about more train service going into Worcester and Springfield. Lastly expanding the Lowell line into NH might be worthy of trying using something similar to the old Budd Liners that Boston and Maine used to run

    1. Yes to expanding lines. Trains to major cities in MA from Boston are absolutely needed in order grow the economy westward. Make them fast trains too. Fast trains exist elsewhere but are rarely used in US. Also what does NY do exactly? How is it that their system brings millions of people into the city so reliably?

  2. I use the T a lot. I am not at all put off by the fare. The question as posed is too simplistic. In order to answer I would need to know what the new fares would be. I understand “elasticity of demand”. I also know that a number of other factors come into choice of goods and services, in this case, transportation. When there are choices, the perceived value of the competing goods and services must be considered. Convenience at a particular moment may be part of the calculation. I think putting an additional fee on ride sharing is a terrible idea. For elderly and and disabled people, ride sharing services are wonderful. Please keep that in mind. Let’s think this through. Sincerely, Paula Furst Neckyfarow

  3. I fully support the reduction of fares by increasing taxes and Lyft fares. I would change the allocation of any excess raised to other alternative transportation options such as bicycling and pedestrian to improve infrastructure. These need more support as well.

  4. I forgot to mention that we also need interregional transit as well. High speed transit between our metropolitan areas would enhance economic development more evenly while giving us options when traveling through the state.

  5. I suspect that the answers to your question will quite depend on whether using public transportation is an option for an individual. I commuted for 2o years from Watertown to Boston by bus and subway and only used my car when I had to drive to business meetings etc. But my bus stop was close and the change to the T at Harvard Square easy.
    I wonder whether the “elasticity of demand” figure works on the reduction side as well, if it does not go hand in hand with a service improvement, not only reliability, etc. but also with routing that includes new office parks, etc.
    I also wonder whether the free bus fares idea could not be tested on some inner city buses first to see how much ridership would really increase.

  6. I hope the idea of making all bus lines free will be considered. I’ve visited Denver, which runs free buses, and they are much more convenient and fast, and boarding truly does go more quickly. I imagine that making buses free might increase ridership by more than the 15% that a linear extrapolation suggests — which could be a real boon to drivers dealing with congested traffic as well as lower-income people. You mention regional equity issues, and I’m curious how they would play out if bus fares were eliminated.

    Thank you for exploring these possibilities!

  7. My opinion is probably incredibly unpopular, but you need to do both. But in reality doing both will still do nothing. I once heard that for every complex problem there is an easy solution and that easy solution is always wrong! Either proposal will be a drop in the ocean of our state’s transportation problem. So let’s get pie in the sky for a moment, as most if not all of what I’m going suggest will never happen.

    1. A gas tax is messy for the reasons Will mentioned. Somebody living in Northhampton is not going to benefit from the T, or benefit from someone else taking the T, as in less cars on the road. Any economist will tell you the best tax is when the person directly using the good or service directly pays for it. What you really need to do is set up transponders on every bridge and every major road. Every time you drive over that bridge/etc. you get dinged 10 cents or something like that. The money goes only to that bridge or that road. You use the bridge or the road you pay for it. Simple. Then you completely eliminate all “general tax” money spent on roads. As is stands now the person paying for the T is still paying for the roads through their taxes. IF you decide to drive then you should pay for all the costs associated with it. Also in this case the person in Northhampton pays for roads there and not here and vice versa. The technology for this has existed for decades.

    2. A congestion tax in Boston, similar to London’s would also help

    3. Raise the fare on the T, but exempt anyone over the age of 60 and 19 or below, hell let them ride for free, they are a tiny minority of T riders anyway. Same goes for anyone on public assistance if you need to. Sure pricing it has gone up recently, but that’s making up for years of under funding. Prices in Boston are stupid low compared to the metro in DC, or the NYC Subway. We can’t expect the service on the T to get any better if we cut their main source of revenue. I agree that it’s horribly mismanaged but let’s get some new equipment and then work on the people problem.

    4. Let’s remove the Big Dig’s debt from the T’s budget. It was criminal that way that $1.7 billion in debt was transferred to the T because the state wanted it off their budget. That was certainly some clever accounting work. I took the T before the big dig and take it now, it benefitted very little from it. As outlined #1 and #2, put a toll on the Zakim bridge and make the cars in Boston pay for the Big Dig, not the T.

    5. Lastly we need high speed rail. If they can build private bullet train from Houston to Dallas, why on earth can’t we build one from NYC to Boston (the Acela is not high speed rail). If that proves profitable then build another from Boston to Albany, then another to Providence, then another Portland. Commuters should be able to get from Springfield to Boston (with stops in Worcester and Waltham) in 45 minutes on the train. Not only will that ease congestion it will be the only thing that helps with housing affordability in the state.

    Of course I realize that none of this will happen. But going with Plan A or B here certainly won’t fix the problem.

    1. Let’s remove the Big Dig’s debt from the T’s budget this is right the thing to do. I also agree with the high speed rail idea. I am sure some group is lobbying against it. However, the people in North Hampton would benefit from less carbon emissions. The gas tax would be a positive for all in that it may accelerate less use of fossil fuel. Driving will still occur even if more take the T. So let’s incentivize drivers to shift to other fuel sources.

  8. The rapid growth of Lyft and Uber indicates that there is a segment of the market willing to pay much more for transport if it is personalized and rapid. Those ventures uncovered hidden demand and have improved quality of life in many ways. What can we learn from that? Maybe that there is a constituency for better public transit. Maybe that the cost of better transit has to be socialized in a higher gas or other tax.

  9. Not sure I buy into the belief that lower fares would increase ridership. The constant headlines noting how unreliable the T and Commuter Rail are would outweigh any incentive from a cost change, in my opinion.

  10. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to weigh in. I absolutely think we should be doing whatever is necessary to curb vehicle use and encourage public transportation. That said, the quality of our public transportation must improve if people rely on it. I would also invest heavily in safer bike paths.

  11. I use Lyfta lot?since I don’t drive. I am okay with the tax per ride idea. But I do have concerns. We need to tip the driver, how can we make sure that we are not tipping the driver less to recover the taxes? Also, I found the buses sometimes simply didn’t take money, because the machine was not working. It wasted a lot of money. Need to address this as well.

  12. Agree fares should be decreased or free for buses…I worked with low income and homeless families and they really struggled to pay T fares.
    Don’t agree on Uber tax…. employers whose working poor employees rely on public transportation should contribute.

  13. I’m all for this. I only use the T occasionally but I think we need to make public transportation more affordable and desirable for those who need it. I am a retired educator and willing to pay my fare share.

  14. Sorry, I am sick and tired of taxes being raised to benefit others. Read the Constitution. We are a ‘tax happy’ state and it seems as though the wonderful people of Massachusetts do not mind their money being
    taken out of their pockets to support whatever politicians believe we need money to support. I love this state, but I am tired of the taxes. Figure out another way of off setting costs other than more taxes.

    1. First we are a Commonwealth, and the fact that there is a Constitution implies some sort of social contract in which we are beholden to one another. I wish someone would read the Constitution as things like the reapportionment act dilute the representational power of less rural states. Secondly, it is time to put the Taxachusetts label to bed with the Welfare Queen fairy tale. If one doesn’t want to pay taxes then one can move to NH. However, one will often to come back to the Commonwealth of MA for jobs. Thirdly, a gas tax would benefit all as it can encourage the switchover to green tech. I think green tech, more than recycling or any other measure, will give us the biggest bang for our bucks. It is saving Google data centers tons of money! Clean air is a good thing as it means less healthcare costs later on. I am sick and tired of people being pennywise and pound-foolish.

  15. Our taxes are high enough thank you. We don’t need to increase them to subsidize a small subset of the population who chooses public transportation. I would love to not have to pay the high cost of fueling, insuring and maintaining private transportation that I need to work. However I don’t think it’s fair to increase taxes to benefit me personally. Stop looking to take the easy way out by adding taxes, and instead do the hard work to decrease the budget, routing out waste so you can pay for needed infrastructure improvements.

  16. Yes, it’s high time a higher gas tax was imposed, but since the city buses I use are already often full, eliminating fares to make them more accessible makes little sense. Extra money from a gas tax could help the T and commuter rail provide more buses, trains and drivers so public transportation becomes a more attractive option to driving. Rebates might be made available to those having to drive to work in parts of the state w/o adequate public transportation, and also to those who drive to work in HOV lanes.

  17. I think reducing the T fare to free is a great idea. I think it would have a significant impact on T ridership, moving many people from other less efficient modes of transit to the T. I both drive and take the T and I would definitely drive less if the T were free. I would gladly pay a few cents more on gas if that made the T cheaper. And free has a big psychological impact, making it significantly more attractive than even a minuscule fare.

    However, I think it is important that the T frequency increases and the quality of service improves to handle the additional load without exasperating riders and creating a backlash effect.

    A cheaper T will actually improve the situation for ALL residents, even those who don’t use the T. By moving drivers out of cars over to mass transit, there will be less traffic and the remaining drivers will have clearer roads and faster travel. Pedestrians and cyclists would also have less traffic congestion to deal with, and everyone’s quality of life would improve.

  18. Given existing issues of maintenance and reliability, is this the time to be attracting new riders? Plus which, didn’t MA voters turn down an automatic gas tax increase a few years back? Or, it sounds like a good idea for the future, but now?

    1. I support your doubt. I stopped riding the redline not because it is too expensive, but because I could not get on at rush hour frequently at park street in downtown. It is also slow, uncomfortable and un-reliable. All kinds of issues, medical emergencies, equipment failures, doors cannot close or when doors close they cannot open. Also, the topology of MBTA and buses makes people drive, because getting from Alewife to Malden center would take at least one hour to ride to downtown for a transition to Malden. And there are many places you can’t go to due to lack of services.

  19. Instead of focusing on taxing commuters on their way to and from work, tax the employers who rely on the commuting workforce — especially those employers who are paying less than their share of taxes due to state / city incentives / or leniency directed at wealthy colleges which supposedly have an obligation to contribute to the tax base but don’t. If they want the talent, have corporates & institutions ante up in order to get their employees to work on time and safely.

  20. Contrary to your statement, Mass Transit fare decreases will not incentivize more ridership or take people out of their cars. It will simply shift more of the burden of paying for mass transit onto automotive users. This is both unfair and inefficient.
    Mass Transit should pay it’s own way.
    The solution is to create a system that convenient, efficient and affordable and does not (beyond initial investment) require public funds to operate.

  21. I like your ideas. However reliability and usability of the MBTA services need to also be addressed. For example the transfer/connection points need to have route schedules that are better coordinated. If I can get to transfer point A easily but then need to wait an hour for the connecting bus/T I am more likely to drive or call a lyft/uber/taxi. Better reliability and usability will give drivers more of a reason to use the T/buses and reduce road congestion.

  22. Please, don’t we pay enough taxes, nothing is free. I think people who use the service should pay something towards it. A small increase in taxes and keeping the fares reasonable is the way to go. Senior citizens are not being thought of in any of this.

  23. I will confess that the recent fare increase tipped me over the edge into driving to work 2 out of the 4 days I commute. It saves me $40 a month in fares and that matters in my budget. It also saves me a couple hours a week — I have to leave more time as the T becomes less reliable, and I pay by the hour for child care. So that saves me another $160 a month, at least. The combination of unpredictable service and expensive fares just makes taking the T impractical.

    I am a long-time die-hard transit rider, out of personal preference and environmental concern. I’ve planned every job and home for the past 25 years around being able to use transit. So when I finally find myself turning to my car (which used to sit in the driveway except for weekend excursions), I know others must be too.

    So, yes. I totally buy the idea that reducing fares would increase ridership, with all the benefits that entails to the whole city. It would get me back on the trains, especially if paired with improvements. And you are right that the fares have risen much faster than inflation. When I first moved here decades ago, the T felt “practically free” even when I held a low-wage job. Now it’s a serious line item in the budget, which is why it’s getting cut.

    Thanks for your work on this. I loved the way transit worked in this city when I first moved here and the current situation makes me sad.

  24. How about getting behind MA H.935/S.579, which would create a Massachusetts Public Bank that would allow the State to leverage the credit-worthiness of its very own tax payers (most of us do pay our taxes on time every year, didn’t you know?) to refinance the Big Dig’s debt (which as you should know was foisted off on the MBTA in an act of supreme cynicism) at much better rates than we’re ever going to get out of Wall Street? Just sayin’ …

  25. The subways and bus lines need more capacity. One way to get that is by getting those riders who can to time shift. Perhaps lower fares / passes for off peak times would help. I’d also like to see a system where cost of the ride is proportional to the length of the ride. That would require new entry / exit turnstiles however.

  26. I like the idea of eliminating the fares on buses. Doing so helps poor people and makes their commutes faster.

  27. I agree with the general idea, but this needs careful thought. Some subway and bus lines are already at capacity at rush hour; for those MBTA could very sensibly raise fares to raise revenue to increase capacity or improve reliability. I think most current subway riders would be willing to pay a little more if the service really would improve. My impression is that commuter rail is underutilized (at least the tracks are underutilized) in part due to high fares, so it would make a lot of sense to reduce fares. But to see significant ridership increase beyond what get now will require other changes too, e.g. more train cars, more parking lot capacity at train stations or park-and-ride lots, maybe more or longer train platforms to handle the capacity. Gas tax and Uber tax have merit on their own for reducing emissions and congestion, but best in long run might be if state could capture some of the value associated with property values and new housing developments near transit, and use that to help fund improvements to transit. That way the people and towns that benefit the most from transit pay the most. Certainly people living in towns with virtually no public transit options who are forced to take long drives to get to work will feel it is unfair if they are being taxed more so wealthier people in places like Cambridge can pay less to take the Red Line.

  28. Thank you for this thoughtful post. In light of the severity and immediacy of climate change, we need to doing as much as we can to decarbonize our transportation system, and taking cars off the road–and encouraging public transit–is a vital part of that.

    Pricing schemes for public transit embed an incentive structure. When I lived in DC, the fares were graduated as you went further (even more steeply so now), with peak/off-peak pricing. This is telling people to not use public transit. By contrast, a system like New York’s (or Boston’s) where there is a flat fee no matter how you go encourages people to take it for long trips (provided the service is good–a major qualifier).

    Reducing or eliminating entirely the fares for public transit is a great incentive for people to use it: it makes clear that we *want* people to take this option instead of driving. As you noted, there are also clear equity implications, as well as possible efficiency gains.

    I also appreciate the attention to regional equity. The parts of the state that are much less dense than the Boston metro area will, by virtue of that fact, be more car-dependent, and it is only fair that the money goes to subsidize their public transit systems (PVTA, etc.) and other transportation needs.

    In light of stories after stories of a crumbling MBTA and some of the worst traffic in the country, it’s clear that we need to take action.

  29. It’s wrong to tax everyone for a limited-use system that most ppl can’t tolerate, don’t need, or use for time & distance reasons. It’s just wrong to tax people who would never use the T, and it’s wrong to punish people fed up with rotten taxi drivers & lousy public transport by taxing Lyft/Uber users.

    The T is filthy, always a miserable rider experience, runs too slowly (train & bus), too few busses in our area, and evening bus schedules abandon riders for long stretches. Drivers & staff are usually surly, slow, and clearly hate the public.

    Don’t reward a system that’s limited in range, poorly run & disgusting to use w more cash – care about quality (from inside the org) doesn’t come from money. It comes fr the org’s culture.

    Reallocate funds from elsewhere to reduce fares. Beginning with targeting financial waste by the Pike – take their constantly wasted $. They throw vast amts of OUR $ on road projects aren’t vital, aren’t needed, & that NEVER end.

    In sum, this problem won’t be solved by more taxes. It WILL be solved by setting incentives for Org. efficiency, high standards of care & cleanliness, more frequent service, and paying for that by reallocating funds fr elsewhere, particularly from hot spots of high wasteful spending.

    No raises for leadership, too, if they don’t start producing excellence in their staff, scheduling, and rider experience.

    1. Yes. “In sum, this problem won’t be solved by more taxes. It WILL be solved by setting incentives for Org. efficiency, high standards of care & cleanliness, more frequent service, and paying for that by reallocating funds fr elsewhere, particularly from hot spots of high wasteful spending.”
      The transition of urban dense commuters to more transit from solo-car-commuting, requires a management of transit that supports and motivates the work driving the buses, and maintaining the visual impression of transit.

  30. Gasoline taxes are regressive and would punish Western Mass. residents to benefit Boston. Uber should be further regulated and have to pay for the infrastructure it benefits from – there is no question about that. The fares on the T should not be reduced since the system continues to require substantial investment.

  31. Yes… improved access across the area will advantage many dynamics…price drop must be dramatic and/but service has to also become good and reliable… Consider taxing commercial parking.

  32. Agree. Also think even more aggressive over time is critical. Not just a one time fixed tax, but rising each year, or every 3 years.
    Accompanying the tax, a station, transit vehicle especially buses, and tracks should attract riders, not repel them. Consider the hype about cars and their comforts, their visual appeal, even highways. Route 2 has been largely repaved toward and beyond 128, velvet smooth. Consider the comfort of your ride on any bus, redline car, or commuter rail coach. Consider what you see on the surfaces, many times trash on the floor. Consider what Grand Central Station in NYC looks like, a cathedral to transit.

    1. Consider how a technology or biomedical employer treat their employees—the office space that is attractive.

  33. Nothing is ever free, someone else has to pay for it. I do agree that there needs to be some “hold harmless” to ever rising fares policy. I think taxes should be aligned between beneficiaries and the burdened. That would point to a rise in gas tax and tolls, but the more equitable would be income taxes (corporate as well as individual). I am faced with paying 27% of my income on property taxes. I looked at our town budget an 78% goes to schools. That means I am paying 19% of my income to educate someone else’s child’s upscale education who is of no benefit to me. Now I don’t think this was intentional when it was originally designed. The town is aware of this. so they are pushing property tax deferral, but what they are not aware of is seniors who take advantage of this (two owners) will put the surviving spouse in danger of being fully liable for paying the entire balance as well as a 16% usury interest rate due at title change. Small wonder why I am totally dependent on the T to get around (and we do not have Sunday service). Gave up luxuries like cable, smartphones, automobiles, home heat during the fall and spring (My internet access is through public library).

    I would like to leave you with one important concept. Revenue not collected by fares is replaced by another source. Who is being burdened by it, and are they are being subsidized without paying for it (like employers in the central city etc.) The productivity books must be kept in balance.

  34. Why doesn’t anyone point out that going fare-free saves us money. Right now we have to spend money on creating Charlie Cards and the system that parsed them, install & maintain fare gates at every station, spend money planning fare gates into every new station and remodel and spend more money for people to collect fares, count them and deliver them. And we burn energy and waste time on the green line and buses waiting for everyone to pay their fare while boarding.

    With a fare-free system all of those costs go away. That also means we have more money to spend on improving service. Currently, we must spend some percentage of revenue on fare machines & the related services. Without fares we can pour 100% of revenue into improving service. So fare-free is cheaper to the commonwealth as a whole, more efficient and even improves service immediately by reducing boarding times.

  35. If there is an increase in a gas tax, why would it be necessary for rideshare passengers to pay an additional $1.00? Perhaps the taxis’ should also be charged the $1.00 as well, and limo passengers should pay $2.00. Maybe the gas tax should stand on its own.
    Instead of lowering the fares immediately or at all, any extra money from the gas tax should be segregated and used only for repairs and improvements and not for increases in pay, pension, or salaries. If the trains were in better condition, ran on time( maybe we need to hire some transit people from Japan, not kidding). Riders would not need a fare decrease, and they would want to take the train, instead of a fare decrease, perhaps a fare freeze for a while.

  36. I like the part of your proposal to eliminate bus fares as I believe it would help low income individuals. I think any gas tax is unfair. I rather target increases in Mass Pike tolls from 495 into the city, surcharges to city parking garages & parking meters and new car / new car lease fees. I have mixed feelings on Uber / Lyft surcharges. Many people have been able to eliminate their cars with these services. I am on the road a lot less than I used to be. If you pursue, I would wave for carpool service and add higher fee from airport.

  37. Thanks for your work on this. I say yes to these funding ideas and to more bus lanes (but not to free fares). Might a congestion tax work here as well? And to address the convenience issue (or lack of it), high-density zoning near T and rail stations and more reasonably-priced parking near stations in the ‘burbs. Maybe increase the discount on passes to reduced the number of cash customers – and the boarding delays?

  38. I understand the ramifications of this tax but I feel that it would penalize and place an unfair burden on the commuter that does not have access to public transportation and needs the use of a car to get to a workplace.

  39. Since most ridership is directly related to commercial activity, increases in corporate taxes are prudent. Commuting is the #1 activity, and lost productivity related to poor service hurts business. Shopping and other revenue-generation is another major traffic stream, and we want to encourage local spending vs. click-purchase dollars going out of state. We all benefit when our teachers, healthcare and public-safety workers can get to and from work on time. A tiered fare structure may help with equity. Fares for professional workforce should be subsidized either directly by employers or by corporate tax increases. Overall, we must avoid burdening riders with these increased costs as they are the source of productivity or revenue that businesses and the public need to function.

  40. Will, your spreadsheet shows that cross-subsidies are very expensive ways to get more riders on the T: each new bus trip would cost more than $5. All the studies show small ridership increases with fare decreases (i.e., small price elasticities). The subsidies are not only likely to be ineffective, it would be difficult to remove them later. Targeted service improvements would be a better use of any extra tax money to generate more ridership.
    The evidence indicates T fares are actually pretty reasonable, they are well below those in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and many other cities. It would also be be inefficient to grant across-the-board fare decreases to existing users (like me) when the T is so starved for resources.

  41. If funds from the 9c gas tax go back to Western Massachusetts, they aren’t available to the T. You can’t spend the same revenue twice.

    Also, how do MBTA fares compare to other mass transit systems around the country?

    1. Right. Funds from Greater Boston would go the MBTA. Funds from Western MA would go to their transit authorities.

      It’s hard to compare fares directly, because you are getting different services and traveling different systems. The common metric is the farebox recovery ratio — how much of the total costs of the system are paid by fares. Our current fare recovery ratios not out of line from the rest of the country. Most North American transit systems have fare recovery ratios under 50%. We are at 30%.

  42. I think the Commuter Rail fares need to be adjusted to reflect actual cost. On the Worcester/Framingham line, the fare from Worcester to South Station (40 miles) is $12.25. The fare from West Newton to South Station (10 miles) is $7.00. I take the commuter rail from West Newton and, not only am I paying more than double the per-mile cost, every other train is a Worcester train that doesn’t even stop in West Newton.

  43. Some routes are overcrowded and a fare decrease will only make things worse. Try taking the Red Line from South Station to Harvard Square during evening rush hour and then the 71 bus from Harvard Square to Watertown. Both rides are already standing room only. We need more trains/buses more than we need a fare reduction – at least for many routes.

  44. Why such an effort to penalize Uber/Lyft riders? I’ve suffered through many years of substandard taxi service in the Boston area. One time an angry driver pounded on the dashboard and yelled at me because he picked me up at the airport and I wasn’t going far enough to make it worth his while waiting in the long taxi line there. Another time, when I made arrangements to be picked up in the early morning to go to the airport, the driver showed up very late because he went to Bartlett Ave in Belmont instead of Bartlett St in Watertown. With Uber/Lyft, I know exactly what the ride is going to cost in advance and I know exactly when the driver is going to show up. Cab companies could have added technology like this any time they wanted, but they did not and they couldn’t even get some of the basics right, like showing up on time at the right address and being courteous. If you’re going to add a $1 surcharge to Uber/Lyft then add it to taxi rides also.

  45. Raising the per-gallon gas tax is absolutely the first place to start, both fiscally and environmentally. Current Federal gas tax is about $0.81/gal. Nationally, state gas taxes range from 15 cents (Alaska) to 61 cents (California). Mass. gas tax of 26.5 cents/gal. is slightly below the state gas tax median of 30 cents.

    Combined Fed and State Mass. gas tax: 18 cents + 26.5 cents is 44.5 cents. That one-sixth (17%) when gas is $2.67 per gallon. 9 cents more is 3% more at $3.00 per gallon, 3.3% more at $2.67 per gallon. Given the exorbitant cost of maintaining Mass. roads (repairs at night at overtime rates for heavily traveled roads, plowing and salting in winter, bridge maintenance and replacement, regular police patrol, emergency responses), it should be more, on its own merits, even without spending more on public transit.

    A vehicle that’s driven 15,000 miles per year and gets 30 miles per gallon uses 500 gallons of gas per year. 9 cents more per gallon is another $45 per year, not exactly a deal-breaker for anyone who drives that much.

    For years, I have done reverse commutes on major highways in and out of Boston (my job locations and hours make taking public transit infeasible). Twice a day, I’ve watched long, slow lines of traffic crawl in one direction while I travel at high speed the other way. The number of hours per day that congestion slows drivers significantly (below 30 MPH) is increasing. Adding lanes doesn’t work; build more, and more people will drive.

    The $15 billion spent on replacing the Green Monster in Boston was necessary, because it was crumbling, but also a failure, because it simply moved the congestion locations further north and sourth, e.g. to the intersection of Rts. 93 and 128.

    So, on its own merits, a 9-cent increase in the gas tax is merited.

    However, and this is a big HOWEVER, some other things need to change:

    1) MBTA Pension reform. The T pension system is independent, underfunded, mismanaged, and provides inferior returns to what other pension systems are getting. The Legislature has been kicking this can down the road for years. Both on its own merits and in the context of spending gas tax money on public transit, it needs to be fixed. It is -not- reasonable to tax drivers to pay excessive pension benefits, and fiscal conservatives and anti-taxers will use this to defeat any gas tax increase.

    2) A consistent and sufficient maintenance and capital planning budget. T Manager Steve Poftak’s plan to spend $8-10 billion in improvements is an attempt to catch up on decades of underfunding of capital spending on T infrastructure (transit equipment, rails, wires, power supplies, signaling and communications, bridges, supporting walls, lots of other). Public goods like water and transportation infrastructure are chronically underfunded; they’re not popular, easiest to cut; and can be postponed (until they can’t).

    Once the T catches up, it needs a consistent source of capital funding for ongoing maintenance that is sufficient to maintain the T’s entire network and that does -not- depend on ridership. Concrete, roads, rails and bridges deteriorate at a relatively constant rates, regardless of ridership. Deferred maintenance is like deferring credit card payments – convenient but costly. And, as Click and Clack used to say, “It’s the stingy man that pays the most.”

    The easiest way to increase T ridership and get people out of their cars are to make service faster and more reliable for people who would prefer to use the T, but work in situations that don’t give them the flexibility needed to deal with the T’s currently lousy service. People who work on shifts, who have to relieve other people at fixed times, who have to pick up their kids from daycare on time or face fines for being late, eventually they give up on the T and start driving.

    3) An overall state transportation plan that deals with multiple transportation issues. Replacing the Mass. Turnpike viaduct will cost at least $1 billion. Ditto replacing the Bourne and Sagamore bridges to the Cape. How many smaller, but still big-ticket items are there?

    4) I agree with Gov. Baker’s comment that the T should create fix its existing service before expanding. I’m opposed to expanding commuter rail service to Providence or New Bedford; that will require high subsidies for relatively few riders, and will face the inherent drawbacks of running commuter rail on rails owned and used by other parties with different schedules (Amtrak or CSX). I would strongly prefer that the T improve the quantity and quality of existing service, beyond current schedules, first.

    5) Equity across the state. I taught in Springfield for 3 years, and the “rich east, poor west (west of 495)” divide across the state persists, both in perception and reality. If I lived in Springfield, I’d be opposed to what I’m advocating here; how would it help me. Other parts of the state need proportionate improvements.

    In conclusion, let’s realize that by definition, public transit is publicly subsidized and loses money. That’s why it’s public; it’s necessary, and profit-making operators can not and will not provide equivalent service except at rates far above what most people would pay. As ridership increases, so will losses. The question is not whether to accept losses, but how to reduce them wherever possible, and how to fund them.

    1. Thanks, Aram.

      All thoughtful points as usual.

      FYI, regarding the MBTA pension system, unfortunately, the legislature’s hands are tied by federal law. When the major urban carriers all went bankrupt in the 40s and became public, the existing union contracts were defined as federally protected rights. Not that they can’t be modified, but only through collective bargaining. So, the T pension system is whatever the T and its unions negotiate.

  46. I like the idea of getting some of the incremental time lost on bus stops back through eliminating collections. It would be great if there is a way to measure the gain to the economy through that. If people can get to work easier, with less stress in terms of payment, I assume that helps productivity, benefiting the region.

    Some years ago I think it was beyond Kenmore Square that the Green Line, Outbound, was free. Some changes like that might also help keep a fare structure but give cost-cutting possibilities for commuters.

    I would be curious what the MBTA and others can and do measure in terms of these things. Cost is obviously a major/key measure, it needs to be feasible. I assume we also measure air pollution reduction, as well as traffic congestion. Do they have ways to measure economic productivity improvements, things like that which could compound over time and improve the tax-base? I wonder if some solutions might look expensive over a year or two, but save massive amounts over 5 years plus, for example.

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