Advancing low-income fares beyond Boston

The Gateway Cities Journal

Advancing low-income fares beyond Boston

This month the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) took one last stand to advance a low-income fare program before their tenure over the agency expires. Since 2017, the board has been pushing hard on the agency to provide discounts to low-income riders. In one of their final votes, they choose to instruct agency staff to prepare scenarios for a pilot program. On the one hand, this last-ditch effort makes sense. However, from the Gateway City perspective, the board’s actions are disappointing and a bit perplexing.

Chair Aiello began the conversation by noting how a “K-shaped” recovery is increasing inequality beyond already troublingly high pre-pandemic levels. His statement will surely resonate with Gateway City residents. As of May, 183,000 of them remained out of work. The vast majority (110,000) of these unemployed workers live in Gateway Cities served by MBTA commuter rail. And most are low-wage workers who cannot afford to make use of the service for daily commutes. If the MBTA discounted fares for low-income riders, there’s no doubt that they could broaden their job search, particularly if they are among the one in five Gateway City residents without a car.

The greatest obstacles to implementing a discounted fare have been providing the extra capacity to serve additional riders and replacing lost revenue from current riders. However, these problems don’t apply to commuter rail. At the board’s May meeting, MBTA staff indicated the commuter rail had sufficient capacity to carry more riders without incurring additional expenses. Lost revenue isn’t an issue either. Prior to the pandemic, the MBTA estimates just 2,000 low-income riders utilized commuter rail. A low-income fare would open the travel option to hundreds of thousands of low-income workers. Even if they received a heavily discounted fare, these new riders would provide a significant source of new revenue for the system.

In all of their analysis, the MBTA has never considered this significant net new revenue opportunity. Instead, they continue to publish figures suggesting the system would lose a few million dollars in fare revenue based on current ridership. At the May presentation, the staff explained that it would be difficult to consider revenue collected from new riders because it would take years for low-income households to make residential moves to station areas. At a time when tens of thousands of Gateway City residents live within a short distance of dozens of mostly empty diesel trains passing through their communities each day, this analysis shows a painful lack of awareness of the environmental and economic justice challenges presented by the current fare structure.

So where does this leave us? When the new governing board gathers in the fall, they will consider moving forward with a pilot program that will enroll a few thousand riders. It would take several months to launch, and run for six to nine months. FMCB members expressed hope that this pilot would provide more information and put political pressure on the legislature to provide funds to move forward with a discounted fare pass system wide. If all goes according to plan, the MBTA hopes to have a low-income fare pass up in running in three years (the preliminary schedule inexplicably calls for including commuter rail at the final phase of implementation rather than prioritizing the service where discounts would have the most profound impact).

When a new board gathers in the fall, Gateway City leaders should make a point to be present. The system’s Boston-centric leadership must understand that they have an urgent responsibility to low- and moderate-income residents beyond the urban core.

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