One of the leaders of the Legislature’s transportation committee said Tuesday that state law allows the MBTA to raise fares 10 percent next year, twice the level that transit advocates say is permitted.
“I think the language permits it, yes,” said Rep. William Straus, the House chairman.
Transportation advocates claim that two provisions in the 2013 transportation finance law are inconsistent and do not reflect what state lawmakers intended at the time, which, they say, was a 5 percent increase every two years.
MBTA fares are currently scheduled to increase on July 1, 2016. The MBTA’s fiscal 2017 pro forma, its working budget plan, currently includes a 5 percent increase, but that could change. The MBTA last raised fares in 2014 – by 5 percent.
Straus said that there were two distinct ideas at work in the 2013 law: Restricting fare increases to predictable two-year cycles and the percentage by which the authority can raise fares.
“The distinction that at least I thought was clear in the language was while fares could only be increased in two-year cycles, the rate of increase was distinct and reflected in the annual rate of 5 percent,” said Straus.
Confusion arises because the word “annual” appears in one section of the law pertaining to fare increases, but not the other. Section 78 of the 2013 transportation finance law refers to limiting fare increases “to not more than 5 percent every 24 months.” But Section 61(d) says: “The authority shall not increase fares at intervals of less than 24 months or at an annual rate greater than 5 per cent.”
The 2016 state budget says that the control board has “the authority to establish, increase, or decrease any fare… subject to and consistent with Section 61 (d).”
The Mattapoisett Democrat added that the 5 percent number was originally proposed by the Senate and the conference committee came up with the language that now appears in the statute.
Representatives from the Conservation Law Foundation, Alternatives for Community and Environment/T Riders Union, and Transportation for Massachusetts appeared before the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board Monday to try and tamp down any movement by the control board toward any fare increase that would exceed 5 percent.
“I ask that you keep these riders in mind,” said Lee Matsueda of Roxbury’s Alternatives for Community and Environment, which runs the T Riders Union. “Find alternatives to fare increases.”
“We strongly support a fare cap,” said Charlie Ticotsky, policy director for Transportation for Massachusetts.
After the control board meeting, Ticotsky said that there is “some ambiguity” in the language of the statute and that the “intent” of Patrick administration officials and state lawmakers in 2013 was to restrict fare hikes to 5 percent every two years.
Ticotsky added that, going back to the Legislature to resolve the confusion could be “on the table.”
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the control board was not ready to weigh in on a specific fare hike rate. She held open the door for Beacon Hill to step in and address the problem. “If the Legislature feels like they meant one thing and said another, they always have the opportunity to make changes,” said Pollack.
The issue first came to public attention during a MBTA control board meeting last month when, in response to a question about fare increases from control board member Brian Lang, MBTA/Massachusetts Department of Transportation General Counsel John Englander said that the authority could raise fares by 10 percent next year.
Straus said that state lawmakers knew what they were doing. “I don’t agree with anyone who would suggest that there was a mistake in the draft or that it was a drafting error,” he said. “I think that people are coming to grips with what the language had said for almost two and a half years—and that’s fine.”
Straus conceded that the Legislature could revisit the issue, but he said that Baker administration officials are really the ones driving the bus on fare increases. “The administration has a lot of flexibility in the way they design the fares and, of course, that’s only one part of what’s really needed out there in terms of funding for the T,” he said.
Conservation Law Foundation vice president Rafael Mares said the policy issue frames the larger concern about providing riders with clarity about the timing and the amount of fare increases.
“I personally don’t think 10 percent is small,” he said. “The most important thing, considering this [past] winter and where we stand right now, is that we stay with what people expected, which is a 5 percent increase every other year.”
Mares added that regardless of how the 2016 fare increase unfolds, state lawmakers should move to reconcile the language of the two provisions to avoid future problems.