ALL SIGNS ARE pointing to a fare increase at the T; the only question is how big it will be.
The Fiscal Management and Control Board is scheduled to vote on a fare increase on March 7. Two options are on the table, one that would hike the system-wide average fare by 6.7 percent, bringing in $33.2 million, and the other boosting the system-wide average fare by 9.7 percent, raising $49.4 million. Both proposals would hike the T’s most popular monthly pass by more than 10 percent. The board could choose one of the fare options or some hybrid of the two.
The T solicited public comment on the fare hike proposals between Jan. 8 and Feb. 12 at 11 public meetings, on the T’s website, and via email. A “sentiment analysis” conducted by the T indicated 73 percent of respondents opposed a fare hike. Many advocacy groups are also opposed, including Transportation for Massachusetts, the NAACP, and the Pioneer Institute.
Even as the T surveyed public attitudes, however, it seemed as if authority officials were already counting on a fare increase. The board included revenues from a 5 percent increase in its budget planning materials for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. The head of the board, Joseph Aiello, who was not at Monday’s meeting, said at a Feb. 10 meeting that he believed the underlying arguments for a fare increase remain valid.
Gov. Charlie Baker last week defended the need for a fare increase on a day when commuter rail service was snarled by a switching problem. Asked how he could justify raising fares when service is so unreliable, he answered: “That’s exactly why we should.”
Brian Shortsleeve, the chief administrator of the T, suggested on Monday that a fare increase was reasonable given that the authority has some of the lowest fares in the nation. He also pointed out that public opposition to a fare hike has been modest.
Shortsleeve said the T’s fare recovery ratio (fare revenue divided by operating expenses, not including debt) is slightly less than 40 percent, below the national average of 40.13 percent in fiscal 2014. He said a fare hike in combination with the T’s success in reining in its spending should boost the ratio into the 44 percent range.
The MBTA’s LinkPass, which provides unlimited bus and subway rides, would rise from $75 to either $82.50 or $84.50 under the two fare options. In New York,T officials said, a similar pass currently costs $116.50, while the price is $91 in Philadelphia and $100 in Chicago and Portland, Oregon. “Even under option 2, fares here remain a value,” Shortsleeve said.
Shortsleeve said public opposition to a fare hike has been low-key, much like it was in 2014 when fares increased 5 percent. By contrast, T officials said, reaction to a 23-percent fare hike in 2012 was much more vocal, with public hearings drawing large, raucous crowds.
According to a T report released on Monday, 475 people showed up at the 11 public meetings on fare hikes, four of which also focused on commuter rail schedules. Of the 475 people who attended the meetings, 170 spoke about fares, nearly all of them in opposition.
Turnout at the meetings varied greatly. A hearing in Boston on Feb. 2 at the State Transportation Building attracted 110 people and another in Roxbury on Feb. 10 drew 95. But other meetings drew much smaller crowds. Only 11 people showed up for a Feb. 4 meeting in Newton, 16 attended a meeting in Chelsea on Feb. 9, and 18 came out for a meeting Feb. 11 in Weymouth.
Online, the T offered customers a tool that allowed them to estimate how the fare hikes would impact them. They were also offered the opportunity to comment on the fare hikes. Initially, customers could only choose between the two fare increase options, but after a day they were also given the option of opposing any fare hike.
According to the T, 4,850 people did the fare impact analysis and 2,150 went on to take the online survey. Of those who took the survey, 1,202 opposed any fare hike, 380 favored fare hike option 1, 186 favored option 2, while 165 preferred some other fare increase, and 217 had no preference.
The T also received 325 emails, 350 form-emails, 80 phone comments, 15 letters, and 30 form letters on the T fare hikes.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh did not testify at any of the public meetings on the fare hike or send anyone from his administration. A number of state reps, senators, and city councilors did attend the meetings, including Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, Rep. Evandro Carvalho of Dorchester, and Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson. In Newton, Mayor Setti Warren testified.
The biggest concern overall was service quality, followed by affordability. Eighty percent deemed service quality negative, 78 percent rated negative on personal affordability. Roughly 65 percent voted negative on other revenue alternatives while 31 percent were favorable.
Marc Draisen, executive director of the Massachusetts Area Planning Council, testified in opposition to a fare increase without improved service and reliability. He said an analysis by his group showed, when adjusted for inflation, fares have nearly doubled in the last 20 years. The adjusted value of the gas tax, which is used for transportation funding, has declined by nearly 30 percent in the same timeframe, due mostly to a drop in the price of gas when adjusted for inflation and its bite out of personal income.
Rafael Mares, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said it’s doubtful the T could follow-through with its intention to earmark some of the revenue from a fare increase to keep the infrastructure in a “state of good repair.” He urged the board to rethink any fare increase at all, saying the agency’s “credibility” was on the line with customers.
“Take the opportunity to gain credibility with riders,” he said. “There is no shame in changing course.”