Reducing train fares to achieve equitable TOD
The Gateway Cities Journal
MassINC released a policy brief this week that is a “classic” in the sense that its main finding—many Gateway City residents can’t afford to ride commuter rail—is blatantly obvious. While this problem has been apparent for some time, we think now is the moment to seek a remedy. Transportation has risen to the top of the agenda on Beacon Hill and calls for transforming commuter rail into a more robust regional rail service are coming from many quarters.
The administration’s Future of Transportation Commission and MassDOT’s congestion study each called attention to the Commonwealth’s unique opportunity to focus more development in Gateway Cities and increase mobility throughout the state with enhanced commuter rail service. This growth strategy can create more equitable growth, geographically as well as across our increasingly skewed income distribution; however, for this to occur, those with limited means must be able to take advantage of train service.
Concerns around gentrification are already simmering in Gateway Cities. Community-based groups are likely to stymie efforts to develop dense new housing and mixed-use projects in their cities if they don’t see a benefit for low- and moderate-income residents. If we improve the service yet maintain fares at levels that continue to exclude those with limited means, advocates for vulnerable residents will have good reason to be skeptical.
There’s also reason to be fearful that proposed improvements to rail service will never happen if we exclude low-and moderate-income residents from the business case. The math behind investing in extensive rail upgrades is unlikely to make sense if this infrastructure continues to only carry wealthier riders. The estimates MassDOT is producing for various enhanced commuter rail service scenarios, including those that prioritize Gateway Cities and other urban centers for improvements, assume a status quo fare structure that is uneconomical for a large swath of the current population. Policymakers weighing the benefits of increasing service to Gateway Cities need a true understanding of how many riders a more robust system could transport with a fare structure that also allows moderate-and low-wage workers to make use of the trains.
The business case for commuter rail service is likely to improve when we consider the full range of fiscal benefits to the state. Gateway Cities have high unemployment rates and low labor force participation rates, partly because jobs have left these older industrial communities and commuting to downtown Boston and suburban jobs centers is costly. Commuter rail service that improves access to employment will reduce reliance on public benefits and increase tax payments to the state.
MassDOT is currently conducting a study of what it would mean to offer reduced fares for low- and moderate-income residents. The board will likely consider this issue in the coming months. This is a promising opportunity and a key moment for Gateway City leaders to engage.
Bankers & Tradesman, the Boston Business Journal, CommonWealth, Mass Live, MetroWest Daily News, the Sentinel-Enterprise, State House News, the Telegram, WBUR, and the Worcester Business Journal provide coverage of MassINC’s fare equity report. The Eagle-Tribune and Salem News weigh in with editorials in favor of lower fares.
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