The big picture is that we want more people riding public transportation. As development continues across the region, our roads are becoming more and more congested. It will take a sustained focus on improving public transportation to reshape development patterns and make public transportation viable for more travelers.
To support the necessary investments, we will need to raise revenue. A number of approaches are possible, including congestion pricing, tolling of more roadways, regional transit ballot initiatives, carbon pricing and the old-fashioned gas tax. Our Senate President has expressed willingness to begin the conversation about transportation improvement in earnest in the current legislative session.
In the long run, we should move towards lowering the fares for public transportation riders, even eliminating fares. Especially on very expensive commuter rail routes, some riders are deterred by high fares. We want riders at all income levels to be able to choose public transportation.
For now, we know that currently available revenue is insufficient to fund even the “state of good repair” plans of the MBTA, never mind expansions. For most riders, the biggest concern is not cost. They are more concerned about reliability and congestion. If the public will support substantial new revenues for transit, I firmly believe that those revenues should first be devoted to maintenance and service improvement.
The proposed increase is not a game changer for the MBTA. Fares are only about one third of the MBTA’s funding — the bulk (59.5%) of the MBTA’s funding comes from the taxpayers through state and local government contributions. The fare increase is under 7%.
In 2016, after extensive negotiation, the legislature regulated the MBTA’s fare increases, limiting them to 7% every two years. The current proposal fits within that limit.
Several additional observations should be made regarding the context of the fare proposal. First, fare evasion, especially on the commuter rail, is a reality. However, the MBTA is making both ongoing and long term efforts to reduce fare evasion. Over the next two years, the MBTA’s automated fare collection “2.0” will be rolled out. It will maximize fare collection while also reducing boarding delays.
Second, some have expressed concerns about the MBTA’s level of outreach and public process around the fare increase. The outreach has been extensive and the decision about the fare increase will reflect extended deliberation by T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board. That said, I’m always for improving the public process and the legislature’s Transportation Committee will likely conduct after-the-fact oversight hearings about the fare increase and the fare increase process.
Finally, there are valid concerns about the cost of pension benefits for MBTA workers. For better or worse, under federal transportation law, these concerns need to be resolved through collective bargaining as opposed to state legislation. MBTA management is well aware of its fiduciary responsibility to address the sustainability and fairness of the pension plan in the context of bargaining about many competing considerations. One significant increment of progress was accomplished recently through collective bargaining — to require the publication of full and complete annual financial reports for pension funds, including outside audits.
The MBTA’s board will soon make a decision on their proposed fare increase. The increase is modest and within the parameters that the legislature has defined. The decision about the increase belongs to the MBTA board and I would not support any legislative intervention to block it.
Regardless of the board’s decision, over the coming months and years, I will continue to press for transportation improvements on many fronts for transit riders and for drivers.