THE MBTA OVERSIGHT BOARD ON MONDAY approved a fare increase of more than 9 percent starting July 1 despite angry, vocal protests that disrupted the hearing and forced board members to shout into microphones to have their voices and their votes heard.
By a unanimous 5-0 vote, the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board passed the fare increase that will give the struggling transit agency an additional $43 million a year, but not before making some tweaks demanded by riders’ advocates. The board voted for lower increases for the T’s paratransit service The Ride and also adopted smaller fare hikes for senior and student passes. The board actually dropped the cash price for on-board bus fares by a dime.
“It was a real pity that the people who came to the control board hearing were unable to hear a well-thought out proposal,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said at a meeting with reporters after the chaotic hearing was adjourned. “What was unfortunate was that today’s protesters simply assumed the board was going to make a decision that did not reflect public input when in fact what the board was trying to do and eventually did do was make a decision that clearly demonstrated they heard what the public was asking for.”
Public transportation advocates decried the hike.
“We are deeply disappointed by the Baker Administration’s decision to increase fares by nearly 10 percent,” Kristina Egan, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said in a statement. “Raising prices won’t rebuild the MBTA. It will push over six million riders off transit next year, moving our region backwards. Governor Baker’s Control Board has made the choice to significantly increase fares, despite poor service and despite having adequate savings and state funding to close its budget gap.”
But the anger from riders seethed throughout the packed meeting at the state Transportation Building even before the takeover by protesters.
“How dare the MBTA raise fares when we have to pay more and more for worse and worse services,” Rebecca Gorlin of Roslindale, who identified herself as a disabled user of the MBTA, told board members during public testimony. “I don’t believe there’s no money. There’s things like the Government Center [T station] renovations. I mean, come on.”
Board members made it clear they understood the ire over the aging system’s service. They voted not to hike fares again until at least January 2019, despite state law allowing increases every two years. It is the third time in the last four years the T has raised fares. The T last raised fares in 2014, increasing them an average of 5 percent, and after a hike in 2012, when a massive 23 percent increase was levied. Previous hikes came in 2000, 2004, and 2007.
The initial proposal that was slated to be adopted by the board Monday called for $20 million from the fare hike to be put towards the agency’s structural deficit. But board members voted to put all the revenue from the increase – an estimated $42.6 million – plus another $25 million from next year’s operating budget into a “lock box” that can only be used for service improvements and then only by a two-thirds vote from the board.
“The first focus for us is to improve service,” board chairman Joseph Aiello said. “That takes money. It is almost impossible to describe the nature of the deterioration of the house that is the MBTA. The commitment we are making today is that every dollar of the fare increase will be applied to service improvements.”
The T held nearly a dozen public hearings since the beginning of January, as well as tallying online comments and responses to surveys about two proposed fare increases. One option would have raised fares an average of 6.77 percent while the second option called for an average hike of 9.55 percent. The board adopted the higher fare increase but made several changes aimed at the most vulnerable populations, bringing the fare increase to about 9.22 percent. The change meant a drop in estimated revenue of about $1.2 million. (For more information on the fare hike and impact on specific rides, click here.)
While the staff proposal called for increasing fares of The Ride by 10 percent, board members opted for a 5 percent increase. The change means the fare will go from $3 to $3.15 instead of $3.30.
The board also voted to set the new price of a monthly bus pass, which is heavily used by residents of inner city neighborhoods, at $55, down from a planned $59. The board also set the price of a monthly senior pass at $30 instead of $32. The previous price had been $29.
In a major concession, the board voted to keep the bus fare increase when paid by a Charliecard to $1.70, rather than the planned $1.75. And members actually voted to reduce the fare when paid by cash, from the current $2.10 to $2. The original plan had called for an increase to $2.25.
The board increased the cost of monthly student passes by more than 15 percent, from $26 to $30. But the board also made it a 12-month pass rather than a 10-month pass and gave schools a $1-per-pass discount when they order 1,000 or more each month. Currently, only Boston schools buy that many passes.
Officials insisted the change would help students by allowing them to use the pass in the summer if they get jobs or internships. The change also allows students who do not qualify for the pass to get a Charliecard to buy fares at half price through vending machines. Currently, students without passes have to pay for each individual ride, which Pollack says adds up to an average of $40 a month.
But while the board made accommodations for low- and fixed-income riders, it left in place hefty increases for suburban passengers and commuter rail riders. A monthly Linkpass for T subway and bus riders will go up 12.7 percent to $84.50 while individual rides paid by the Charliecard will increase 7.1 percent to $2.25.
The cost of a monthly commuter rail pass is going up 10 percent for many riders while individual rides will increase between 7 percent to 9.5 percent.
As protesters shouted “Shame on you” while the board was voting, members nonetheless voted unanimously before adjourning. Pollack said that, when the protest first erupted, there had been talk of bringing in transit police. But members decided to resume the meeting and allow the protesters “their First Amendment rights.”
Board member Brian Lang, a union official, said he was unfazed by the protest, having been part of them in other venues. But, he said, the board made what was a responsible decision in the face of a dire need for revenues.
“Me, personally, I’m used to that all the time. I’m a union president, that doesn’t faze me,” said Lang. “We listen to the public, the public says low-income riders need some kind of relief and that’s exactly what we did today. What we did was make accommodations and mitigations that are going to affect low-income riders in a positive way.”