Low-Income MBTA Fares Back On Track With Budget Directive

Longwood MBTA Station heading to Boston

Photo: dlyettefi / iStock / Getty Images

BOSTON (State House News Service) - More than two years after the last legislative push died and with multiple MBTA analyses already complete, the long campaign to roll out a low-income fare option at the T took a significant step forward Monday.

Lawmakers earmarked money to begin moving toward a cheaper fare option for some riders as part of a $56.2 billion fiscal year 2024 budget they sent to Gov. Maura Healey, a bill that also features hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending on the T, regional transit authorities and other transportation infrastructure.

About 47 percent of the $1 billion in projected spending from the state's new surtax on high earners would go toward transportation under the Legislature's budget compromise, and the other 53 percent would flow to education.

If Healey gives her support, the surtax money would significantly boost the state's investment in the MBTA after a long stretch of safety issues, service disruptions and financial speed bumps.

The final compromise budget directs $206 million in surtax revenue toward the MBTA, a bit more than either Healey or the Senate proposed but less than the House's recommended $320 million, according to a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation analysis.

That includes $180 million for work on the T's "physical infrastructure," such as station improvements and bridge repairs. A $10 million slice would fund the design of a long-awaited downtown Boston link between the Red Line and Blue Line, the only two subway lines on the system that do not intersect.

Another $5 million line item would once again revive an effort to press the T to offer a lower-cost fare for riders who might struggle to pay full price.

The money, which Healey first proposed in her budget in March, would be earmarked for a program to "research the feasibility of implementing a means-tested fare program." Before accessing the funds, MBTA officials would need to "submit a proposed design" for the program, and they would then need to file a report with lawmakers by April 1, 2024 detailing their work.

Supporters have been pressing for years for the MBTA to roll out a widespread low-income fare to complement a handful of reduced-cost options currently available to specific groups like students and seniors. In June 2021, shortly before it dissolved, the MBTA's oversight board at the time voted to instruct agency officials to draft plans for a low-income fare, but no new program ever launched.

MBTA staff have already produced multiple public presentations about the potential impacts of offering a widespread low-income fare option.

Most recently, T analysts said this spring that about 60,000 riders earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line but do not fall into the age ranges to qualify for existing youth and senior discount programs. The annual costs of a wider low-income fare program would eventually settle around $55 million after a few years of growth, they said.

The Public Transit Public Good coalition, which has suggested that lower-income riders could save up to $500 per year from a discounted fare option, praised lawmakers for supporting the latest measure. Coalition co-chair Lee Matsueda called it "a significant victory."

"We need this discounted fare for low-income riders. Many riders struggled to afford bus and train fares even before the pandemic," MBTA rider Mitikei Chengerei said in a press release circulated by the coalition. "Structural racism and economic exploitation have created deep inequalities in Massachusetts, disproportionately impacting communities of color and working families who rely on transport to get to school, work, and medical appointments. This investment will provide us with much-needed respite."

It's not the first time lawmakers have sought to push the MBTA toward embracing low-income fares.

At the close of the 2019-2020 lawmaking session, the Legislature sent then-Gov. Charlie Baker a wide-ranging bill that ordered the MBTA and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services not just to study the topic, but to "implement a low-income fare program that provides free or discounted transit fares to qualifying riders."

Baker vetoed that language from the bill, and because lawmakers shipped him the measure so late, they were unable to take the vote required to override the governor and make the policy law.

Another $20 million in proposed surtax spending in the budget is pegged as a "workforce and safety reserve" for the MBTA, which faces staffing shortages as it works to address a series of glaring safety issues flagged by the Federal Transit Administration. Lawmakers previously made $378 million in direct appropriations available to the T to fund the FTA response, plus another $400 million in bond capacity that has not yet been tapped.

The FTA said last year the MBTA might need as many as 2,000 more employees, and the agency has struggled to bring on new workers faster than current staffers are leaving for retirement or other jobs.

Still, MBTA General Manager Phil Eng said Tuesday that the agency is "hiring at a rate that we've never hired before."

"We are hitting [internal] metrics, but attrition is offsetting those metrics," Eng said in an interview on WBUR's "Radio Boston," adding that officials are hoping to convince more workers that they can have a long career at the agency. "That's the next piece that we're working on."

Legislative negotiators this year agreed on significant new funding for the state's 15 regional transit authorities as well, some of which have discounted or eliminated fares entirely in recent years to attract more riders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The compromise budget directs $90 million in surtax revenue to RTAs, up from $25 million Healey proposed in her budget.

Written By Chris Lisinski/SHNS

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