A low-income T-passenger fare could provide much-needed relief to the inflation-squeezed poor
MBTA’s former oversight board, the Fiscal and Management Control Board, tasked the agency with launching a pilot low-income fare program by July 2022 in one of its last meetings last summer. Under a new oversight board, which has been meeting since October, the MBTA has made no progress on the recommendation.
Although included in the Senate bill, the low-income fare mandate was left out of the House version of the bill and faces opposition from the House’s top transportation lawmaker. The two bodies must reach an agreement on transportation arrangements before the Legislative Assembly recesses for its summer recess on July 31.
He could also be condemned by Gov. Charlie Baker, who vetoed a low-income tariff bill passed last year. Baker’s aides did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Still, Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Democrat from Lynn and co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, said he hoped a low-income fare would pass.
“The public transport system must work for everyone,” he said. “As of now, that is not the case.”
The Senate bill also includes $7 million for transit authorities to launch free bus programs.
With no movement on transit reform from Beacon Hill, some lawmakers have said state transit agencies don’t need to wait for a legislative mandate to experiment with reduced fares.
“The MBTA and [Regional Transit Authorities] don’t actually need permission from the legislature,” said State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Democrat from the Jamaican Plains who recently ended a campaign for governor. “They could have done it all along.”
Several municipalities and transport agencies are already experimenting with free public transport by bus, in particular Boston and the Merrimack Valley Regional Transportation Authority.
Some experts call transit fares the state’s “most regressive” income because they account for a much larger share of spending by lower-income people than those with higher salaries.
“A $2 or $3 fare seems like something you’d drop in the jar after lunch to a wealthier person, but it can decide whether you’re going for an extra job interview for someone on a low income,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior tax analyst at the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transport advocacy group, said low-income fares are about keeping money in the pockets of people who need it most, and eliminating fares from bus can increase ridership and make the service more reliable by reducing boarding time.
” They are different ; we need both, they solve different problems,” she said.
But even initiatives such as mandating the creation of a low-income fare program are only “partial victories,” some proponents say.
With deep-seated safety issues at the MBTA that have been the subject of a federal investigation, passengers and advocates fear these issues will translate into an excuse to push back fare accessibility for another year.
“These are good ideas, but the legislature will actually have to step up the resources,” said Jonathan Cohn of Progressive Massachusetts.
Resources are a major concern for Rep. William Straus, a Democrat from Mattapoisett and co-chair of the Joint Transportation Committee, who said his focus is safety at the MBTA. The committee is holding a monitoring hearing with top state transportation officials on Monday.
“Putting the MBTA into a situation of heightened unknowns at a time when, to me at least, the primary objective is public confidence in the safety of the system, adding another unknown in terms of the financial situation, does not seem to be good times,” he said.
Crighton said funding for a low-income fare program could be worked on later. The T could face a budget shortfall of $236 million next summer when federal COVID-19 relief funds run out.
“There are a lot of challenges,” he said. “It’s a problem we know how to solve: to give people the opportunity to get on the T.”
In response to intense pressure to provide relief to inflation-stressed families, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a proposal to increase the Child and Dependent Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit , the Elderly Breakers Tax Credit and to provide housing assistance. The plan also includes giving potentially millions of taxpayers a one-time refund of $250, or $500 for some dual-income households.
However, the plan excludes the state’s lowest-income residents — those who report less than $38,000 in annual income.
Transport advocates who say a low-income tariff is long overdue still hope the final transport bond bill will include the mandate, which could provide continued financial relief for people.
A 2019 MIT study found that MBTA runners who lower fares paid took about 30% more trips – including healthcare trips and social service facilities.
“With the cost of gas, the cost of groceries going up, these are real savings for a lot of people,” said Pete Wilson, senior adviser at Transportation for Massachusetts. “We’ve all talked about essential workers at the height of the pandemic, let’s do something about these people.”
Boston Sen. Lydia Edwards, who tabled the low-income tariff amendment in her chamber, said that while Baker might veto the idea again, the amendment could still maintain the conversation on low-income tariffs and highlight the legislative will to act. this in the near future.
Baker is not running for re-election this fall, and presumptive Democratic nominee Attorney General Maura Healey is widely considered the frontrunner in the race.
“When Maura Healey is governor, we will have no excuses,” Edwards said.