New MBTA fare system deemed ‘unfair’ by activists

Mela Miles makes a point during a meeting she convened in Four Corners this month to discuss concerns around the MBTA’s AFC 2.0 payment system. Yukun Zhang photo

The words in the strips on the board stated the case for the discussion. “No cash accepted on this bus! Go find a machine,” said the figurative MBTA driver to two people trying to get on the bus. “But there isn’t one nearby,” said one of them in the next panel. In another box, others said, “I don’t have a debit card; The next bus doesn’t come for an hour; I have to go to work.”

This imagined scenario seems more like a reality that worries a few community members about AFC 2.0, the MBTA’s proposed system to let riders pay their fares with new CharlieCards, a smartphone app, or by tapping contactless credit and debit cards on fare readers on the vehicle.

A few community members and transit advocates and city councilor Michelle Wu met at Erie-Ellington Community Center recently to discuss what some see as equity issues around the new fare system.

Mela Miles, lead organizer of Greater Four Corners Action Coalition (GFCAC) and the organizer of the meeting, and her two interns presented a story board illustrating the helplessness of cash users in the new system: Cash will not be accepted onboard, and cash users will have to load their MBTA accounts at fare vending machines, which the MBTA says it will install more of, or at retail sales locations.

Meeting members said the “cashless system” is unfair to people living in communities where fare vending machines or CharlieCard retail locations are not easily accessible.

“There aren’t enough machines around,” said Marvin Martin, president of Action for Regional Equity, a Boston organization. “If you are an elderly person and live on Gaylord Street, you got to walk to Codman Square or Grove Hall to put money on your card.”

Miles said cash users already pay the surcharge to ride the bus, and the “cashless system” about to be installed is “inequities glaring in your face.” She modeled a “fare vending machine” with cardboards and stuck paper on the four sides saying “no $ accepted on T vehicles” or explaining fare evasion fines.

MBTA regulations say the first offense of fare evasion leads to a fine of $100. The second and the third offences result in $300 and $600, respectively. Unpaid fines could lead to a license suspension.

Miles worries that the new fare system would make it more likely for the MBTA to enforce the fare evasion regulations. She also wants to make sure that when cards are checked for payment, there wouldn’t be racial profiling.

If a new CharlieCard will cost $5, as some are saying, it could create an illegal market, said Bob Vance, executive board member of Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation. On that point, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency has made no decision on the cost of the new card.

The new fare system would also make it more difficult for immigrants with language barriers and undocumented immigrants without credit cards to use public transit, attendees said.

Joyce Harvey, a community member of the GFCAC, said community members need to get the Legislature and the unions more involved to support their cause. Wu added that the T should commit to fair policy changes, and that if the term of the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board were to be extended in 2020, the voice of riders and the city should be part of the budget process.

Pesaturo said AFC 2.0 is not “a cashless system,” as cash will be accepted at stations and fare vending machines. “The MBTA is still working to develop a policy on the enforcement of fare collection under AFC 2.0,” he said about fare-evasion fines. “Relevant policies have not been finalized nor has an operational plan been put in place.”