IN OUR COMMUNITY of Chelsea, transit is a lifeline to thousands of people who rely on it to get to school, work, and other critical appointments. Often these are essential workers, taking the system every day to reach jobs cleaning offices, preparing food, or caretaking in cities and neighborhoods far from where they live – often hopping from bus to train to bus again. Many of these riders are low-income residents who depend on buses, rapid transit, commuter rail, and ferries for their livelihoods and to meet their basic needs.
More than 90 percent of these low-income MBTA rides don’t qualify for the limited existing low-income programs – for youth and seniors – that currently exist to ease the burden of transit costs. This is simply not equitable.
All riders deserve affordable transit to wherever they need to go. A low-income fare program can help ensure families don’t have to decide between getting from place to place and buying groceries, going to the doctor, or paying for needed prescriptions. To achieve this goal, we need a broad-based approach that is sustainable across our region. A system-wide, low-income fare program, funded by the Legislature and implemented by the MBTA, is the exact type of long-term, sustainable, and regional approach that is necessary.
A system-wide low-income fare program will promote equity among municipalities by reducing the burden on individual cities and towns to create and fund their own programs. Funding a program for a single route can be a tall order for communities like Chelsea that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID and face many competing priorities for limited time and financial resources. Communities across our region face different levels of food and housing insecurity, and expecting economically challenged communities to put forth desperately needed funds for transit relief is unrealistic and inequitable.
Low-income fares are extraordinarily popular among the public across the state – including in cities and towns that couldn’t be farther afield from Boston. According to the MassINC Polling Group, nearly 80 percent of Bay Staters want to see a low-income fare program move forward. In addition, low-income fares increase ridership on the system. A 2019 MIT study on low-income fares showed that trips by participating riders increased by 30 percent, that trips increased during off peak times for social services, and that riders made more transfers among modes (bus to subway to another bus).
Along with funding a low-income fare program for the MBTA (which could be tested as a pilot to answer questions about ridership, impact, and long-term feasibility), the Legislature should make a similar investment in regional transit authorities to ensure every transit rider can afford to get on any transit system across Massachusetts. The Merrimack Valley RTA saw a 43 percent increase in ridership during March and April after the system implemented a two-year fare free pilot program.
In 2021, the Legislature passed a low-income fare program for the MBTA and RTAs, but it was vetoed by Gov, Charlie Baker. Now, with tax collections surging, the state government has a multi-billion-dollar budget surplus to pay for this program. Legislators have until July 31 to deliver this proven and popular solution to support people across the region who are struggling with the burden of transit costs. Our constituents and transit riders deserve no less. We urge the Legislature to act.
Thomas G. Ambrosino is the city manager of Chelsea and Maria Belen Power is associate executive director of GreenRoots.