Advocates call for reduced MBTA fares for low-income riders

Transit advocates are calling for a reduced fare for low-income MBTA riders.

The call comes after many T fares increased by an average of 6 percent earlier this month.

The advocates, who filled the sidewalk Monday ahead of a joint meeting of the Department of Transportation board and the MBTA Fiscal Management Control Board, want low-income riders to pay the same monthly price as a youth pass: $30 a month.

“A low-income fare would make the system more affordable and viable for low-income households, encouraging ridership for the MBTA, and ultimately transforming the MBTA into a pathway to opportunity, not the obstacle it currently is for low-income people,” Nicole Rodriguez, a researcher with the nonprofit Community Labor United, said to the crowd.

The reduced fare would be for people earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of three, that’s about $64,000 a year; for an individual, $37,470.

Advocates point to a recent MIT study that looked at the impact of subsidized fares on low-income riders. People receiving food stamps got either a 50 percent discount CharlieCard or a regular priced one. Those who got the reduced rates took roughly 30 percent more trips, and more trips to receive health care and social services.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, vice chair of the MBTA board, said the board was already considering reduced fares for low-income riders, but there needs to be a greater sense of urgency.

“We’ve done a really good job in responding to this so far. I just think we need to work a little bit faster,” she said. “And I just want to make sure that the public understands that you are being heard ... and we want to make sure that we’re providing the type of service you want and making sure to respond to the issues of many of our riders, especially in the economic situation we have in the commonwealth currently.”

Boston wouldn’t be the first city to reduce fares for low-income riders. New York City recently implemented the so-called Fair Fares program, which offers a 50 percent discount. So far more than 60,000 New Yorkers have enrolled.

The proposal from advocates in Boston goes further than the NYC program, which is available only to people earning 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollock says the roll-out has been rough in New York, and Boston needs to be careful not to go down a similar path.

“New York has really struggled with its program even though it was given tens of millions of dollars by the New York City Council,” Pollock said. “So there wasn’t even a revenue issue; it was literally [about], ‘How do you find the riders and put the passes in their hands after you have the funding?’”

Pollock said any feasibility study should examine the New York program, as well as the experiences of other cities that have implemented fares for low-income riders.

The T board is expected to consider a feasibility study on the reduced fares proposal at its August meeting.

For those who roll their eyes at the prospect of yet another study, Chair Joseph Aiello emphasized that feasibility is about action.
“This is really thinking about implementation steps that would be needed in order to have a successful program,” Aiello said. “And I just want to assure this is not another study; we are not going to redo the MIT study. This is to try to understand how we might do it.”

Determining feasibility will be about finding out how much a subsidized fare program will cost — and who’s going to pay for it.

This story was first published by WBUR 90.9FM on July 23. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership. Simón Rios is based out of the Dorchester Reporter newsroom. He may be reached at srios@wbur.org.