BOSTON (State House News Service) — Newly touting support from every Boston mayoral candidate, activists pushing for reduced fare or free rides for low-income MBTA users are ramping up pressure on state lawmakers as the issue gains more prominence in Massachusetts.
All six major candidates vying for Boston's top job signed a petition, along with more than 600 other residents, demanding that the Legislature intervene and require the T to offer reduced-cost trips for riders who struggle to pay full price, create new progressive revenue streams for public transit, and ensure representation for riders and workers in MBTA oversight.
The Public Transit Public Good Coalition, which circulated the petition, linked its latest effort to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the economic upheaval over the past year-plus exacerbated inequity and exposed the importance of affordable and accessible transit for front-line workers.
"Even before the pandemic, many riders were struggling to afford bus and train fares," petitioners wrote. "Structural racism and economic exploitation have created deep inequalities in Massachusetts as elsewhere, leaving working families and communities of color struggling to make ends meet. COVID-19 has thrown even more of us into economic insecurity, as nearly one million people in Massachusetts have lost their jobs."
Backers have been arguing for low-income fares for years, and for much of that span, the idea struggled to gain traction outside of labor and rider groups or politicians who stand to the left of Beacon Hill leadership.
In recent months, though, the T has crept toward embracing at least a test run, and reduced or free fares has emerged as a point of consensus in the high-profile mayoral race.
Boston Mayor Kim Janey, currently serving in an acting capacity and seeking election to a full term this fall, in April suggested using federal aid to make some bus routes entirely free of charge. Fellow City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu has been advocating for fare-free transit, and another councilor vying for the mayorship, Andrea Campbell, supports offering free buses for passengers.
Every mayoral candidate -- Janey, Wu, Campbell, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, John Barros, and Rep. Jon Santiago -- signed the Public Transit Public Good petition urging lawmakers to create a low-income fare option, according to the coalition.
"Massachusetts residents need a MBTA low-income fare system now," Community Labor United Executive Director and coalition member Lee Matsueda said in a statement. "Low-income communities have suffered disproportionately during this pandemic, and the public transit system is a critical piece to our recovery. We urge our legislature to create access and affordability for all, and make the low-income fare a reality."
Vocal support from City Hall could ramp up the pressure on Beacon Hill, which continues to stare down questions about how to fund public transit amid near-perpetual structural budget gaps at the MBTA.
After COVID-19 thrust long-standing equity concerns into the spotlight, low-income fares could also emerge as a policy priority beyond Beacon Hill. The state Democratic Party is soliciting input this summer about how to update its platform, and candidates are already pitching themselves to voters ahead of the 2022 gubernatorial campaign.
Supporters say reducing or eliminating fares for low-income riders would ensure those who need transit most are able to access it and would drive up the use of public transit and help more workers use the system to travel to and from their jobs and other appointments, justifying the cost.
A 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study provided MBTA tickets at a 50 percent discount to individuals receiving SNAP benefits and found they took about 30 percent more trips compared to a control group. When the city of Lawrence ceased charging fares on three bus routes in 2019, ridership jumped 24 percent, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Lawmakers made one pass at requiring action on low-income fares. A transportation bond bill they sent Gov. Charlie Baker in the dying hours of the 2019-2020 lawmaking session required the state's 15 regional transit authorities to study means-tested fares and mandated the start of a low-income fare program at the MBTA.
Baker vetoed those sections, though, and because the Democrat-controlled House and Senate waited so long to finalize the bill after negotiating the language for more than five months, they left themselves without time to attempt to override his rejection.
Since then, legislative leaders have not returned to the topic of low-income fares or signaled that it is a major lawmaking priority in the 2021-2022 session.
The House and Senate also have not revived last session's debate about generating new revenue from and for the transportation sector. The House approved a set of tax and fee hikes in March 2020 that authors said could have raised more than half a billion dollars per year for transit, road and bridge needs, but COVID-19 soon consumed virtually all attention and the Senate never took up the proposal.
The transportation revenue debate has picked up this year on a different track, as lawmakers voted to send a constitutional amendment to the 2022 ballot that would impose a 4 percent surtax on annual household income in excess of $1 million, with the resulting roughly $2 billion to be spend on education and transportation.
In addition to expressing support for putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot, the mayoral candidates and petition signers are also urging lawmakers to pass "progressive revenue measures," including an increase in the corporate income tax, and a measure that would close a loophole on off-shored profits.
The MBTA, a linchpin of the metropolitan Boston area that hosted roughly 1.2 million trips on an average weekday last year before ridership cratered during the pandemic, appears headed for continued budget strain even after receiving nearly $2 billion in federal emergency aid to help bandage COVID-19 impacts.
By fiscal year 2025, MBTA officials expect the agency to have exhausted federal stimulus and face a $300 million to $450 million budget gap.
Petitioners urged lawmakers to pursue "new, fair, and sustainable sources" of progressive revenue to support public transit in Massachusetts rather than the existing model that relies on fares and a dedicated portion of the state's sales tax revenue.
"Right now, the MBTA's revenue comes largely from highly regressive sources -- fares and sales taxes -- that is unfair because they cost poor people more, as a percentage of income, and unstable because they cannot be relied on in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic," the petition reads. "Our RTAs need additional, predictable revenue to modernize and expand."
MBTA officials have been studying low-income fare options since at least 2017. Estimates the MBTA produced in May pegged the costs for a means-tested fare program at $29 million to $44 million to implement and then $72 million to $112 million per year, assuming eligibility was set at 200 percent of the federal poverty level and that the T increased service to meet growing demand.
For some, that price poses too large an obstacle amid the MBTA's current financial outlook.
"The benefits of these programs are obvious and true and real, and I wish that we lived in a society and in a state where these things could become a reality and were funded," MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane, whose group represents cities and towns that help fund the T, said earlier this month. "But that is not where we live right now. Without new revenue, these programs can simply not be afforded by the MBTA. The T cannot and should not be expected to pay for social service programs alone. The T is not a social service agency. It is a public transit provider."
On June 7, the Fiscal and Management Control Board voted to instruct staff at the agency to draft plans for a low-income fare pilot program that would run in fiscal year 2023.
The FMCB expires at the end of the month, though, so the final decision on whether to implement the pilot will rest with whatever entity succeeds the board as the T's governing body.
Lawmakers are moving toward creating a seven-member MBTA board of directors to replace the five-member FMCB, though the House and Senate remain split over details such as meeting frequency and board composition.
The Public Transit Public Good petition calls for the Legislature to ensure that one seat on the new board goes to a rider from an environmental justice community, which are "most reliant on public transit," and another seat goes to an organized labor representative.
By Chris Lisinski, State House News Service