THE MBTA oversight board called for making fines for fare evasion among the lowest in the country – at least until fares based on the income level of the passenger are implemented.
The current fines for fare evasion at the T are $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense, and $600 for the third or subsequent offenses. T staff, as part of an internal review, recommended reducing the fines to $50 for first, second, and third offenses and $100 for all subsequent offenses.
But members of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday signaled that a $50 fine was still way too high. During a lengthy debate on the issue, they called for reducing the fine for fare evasion to just $10. According to the T’s research, the $10 fine would be well below what six peer transit agencies charge – a range of $50 to $120 for an initial offense.
There also seemed to be some consensus on the board in favor of linking fare evasion fines and fares based on income. Control board member Brian Lang proposed setting the fine for fare evasion at $10 until low-income fares are implemented at the transit authority. Once that happens, he said, the fare evasion fine could be raised to $50.
The board took no action on the fine level on Monday, and indicated a final decision would be made later this month.
The debate surfaced as the T is struggling with a series of issues related to fares. Politicians at the state and local level are pushing for free fares on some routes and some modes of travel. T officials, including General Manager Steve Poftak, don’t like the idea of abolishing fares entirely, partly because of the high cost and partly because the benefit is not tailored to those who need it.
T officials estimated on Monday that the cost of free bus service, which is being pushed by the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, would cost between $97 million and $137 million in its first year without adding new service to reduce overcrowding. Adding more service to avoid overcrowding would drive up the cost to between $184 million and $486 million.
The estimates include the cost of making paratransit service free because under federal law that service cannot cost more than two times what the same ride would cost on the bus network. The T acknowledged there is some wiggle room on its cost estimates because it is lumping in all paratransit rides, including those beyond the reach of the federal law.
Members of the control board favor fares based on the passenger’s income level, but they are growing frustrated that the T seems to be slow-walking that initiative. Monica Tibbits-Nutt, the vice chair of the board, said T officials have been talking about low-income fares since 2017 but never seem to get anywhere.
Joe Aiello, the chair of the control board, said the T’s lack of action on low-income fares is allowing the push for doing away with fares entirely to gain momentum. “We need to get moving on it [income-based fares] or we’re going to get run over by the free fare movement,” Aiello said.
The other concern is what to do when a new $1 billion cashless fare collection system kicks in in 2023. Buses and above-ground Green Line trains will allow passengers to board more quickly at all doors by tapping their passes at on-board readers, but the T is concerned that the new system will lead to much greater levels of fare evasion.
Andy Stuntz, the T’s senior manager of fare analysis, estimated $72 million in fare revenue would be at risk with the new all-door boarding system. He said the risk would be minimized with a fine big enough to get the attention of riders combined with a fare verification team large enough to make passengers think twice about boarding without paying.
Stuntz said the optimal combination would be a $50 fine and a team of 80 to 100 fare verification agents who would check 3 to 5 percent of all boarding passengers. He estimated the team of 80 to 100 fare verification agents would cost the T as much as $12 million.
Several control board members said they believed the $50 fine was too high and showed little interest in increasing the size of the fare verification team. Tibbits-Nutt said a $50 fine for evading a $1.40 bus fare or a $2.70 subway fare was excessive. She also said most of the people who evade fares are doing so because they don’t have the money to pay the fare.
Lang came up with the idea of linking fare evasion to low-income fares as a way to build a fiore under T staff to get moving on the establishment of fares based on income. He recommended lowering the fare evasion fine to $10 and raising it only when low-income fares kick in.
T officials promised to deliver a more concrete action plan for delivering low-income fares later this month, along with a new recommendation for fare evasion fines.
T officials also revised a number of earlier proposals on fare evasion. They dropped plans to bar riders who fail to pay fines from renewing their driver’s license until the fines are paid. They also acknowledged that fare evasion fines should not be uniform across the T system and indicated fines could be higher on the more expensive commuter rail system than the bus system.