Special fare for low-income T riders gains momentum

Some control board members back more commuter rail discounts

MBTA GENERAL MANAGER Steve Poftak said on Monday that the agency intends to research how to implement a special, less expensive fare for low-income people, but he said the scope and parameters of the study need to be worked out.

“The intent is to study it. It’s just a question of the depth of the study,” Poftak said after a meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, adding that he would take no position on a low-income fare until after the study is completed. He also said a low-income fare would be pursued independently of the development of a next-generation fare collection system, which is currently not scheduled to be ready until 2021.

One member of the control board, a Boston city councilor, and a number of transportation advocates called for establishing a low-income fare in the wake of an MIT study released on Monday that indicated low-income riders are particularly price sensitive. The study, commissioned by the MBTA Advisory Board, tracked the trips taken by two sets of riders on food stamp benefits – one group given a 50 percent fare discount and a control group given no discount. The study indicated those receiving the discount took 30 percent more trips, or about 2.5 additional trips a week, and significantly increased trips to health care providers.

The discussion about the special fare discount for low-income riders also prompted calls for eliminating the fare differential between those using plastic Charlie Cards and those using paper fare products, which tend to be used by low-income riders. Several members of the control board also called for more experimentation with discounted commuter rail fares to entice more riders on to the system.

While the T is developing a new fare collection system and working on longer-range studies of the commuter rail fare structure and the best way to operate commuter rail trains in the future, Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, urged MBTA staff to pursue pilot projects that could test whether lower fares on commuter rail would drive up ridership significantly.

Poftak cautioned that most of the commuter rail trains are currently running at capacity at peak morning and evening travel periods, and couldn’t accommodate more passengers.

Aiello wasn’t deterred. He recommended that additional passenger cars be added on some lines, and suggested price discounts might attract more riders to travel off-peak when seats are plentiful.

Control board member Brian Lang urged T staff to experiment more aggressively with commuter rail pricing. He noted the T spent a good deal of time studying a weekend all-you-can-travel $10 fare on commuter rail that, once implemented, has brought in more revenue and more riders.

“How many studies do we need? “ Lang asked. “I’m getting tired of studies.”

Poftak said he was willing to experiment, but first he wanted to investigate the impact of an off-peak discount on the existing commuter rail pass structure.

The MIT study divided a group of 240 people on food stamp benefits into two groups, with one group receiving a Charlie Card entitling them to a 50 percent discount on most trips or an $84.50 monthly pass for $29. The study found those receiving the discounts traveled 30 percent more than a control group receiving no discount – 11.1 trips per week versus 8.6 trips per week.

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