Vote expected Monday on MBTA fare increase plans

Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on March 6, 2016.

BOSTON – Transportation officials will have to weigh consumer input against fiscal needs Monday as they take action on two proposals to increase fares for public transportation across the state.

More than 73 percent of over 8,000 respondents expressed “negative feelings” toward fare increases for train and bus service last month in a public comment period held by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Many cited poor service as a key reason for their opposition.

But officials from the MBTA and the state Department of Transportation say fare increases are necessary to help cover operating costs and maintain MBTA infrastructure.

“For us to improve service, we need resources,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack in a previous statement to The Sun Chronicle.

Members of the MBTA’s fiscal control board will choose between the two proposals Monday.

The first would increase fares across all forms of public transportation by an average of 6.7 percent, generating an additional $33.2 million. The other proposal would raise prices by an average of 9.8 percent and generate $49.4 million.

Under the two proposals Attleboro commuters could see monthly rail passes to Boston increase from $306 to either $321.25 or $336.50. Monthly passes for Mansfield riders would rise from $289 to either $302.50 or $318. And, Norfolk residents would see fares grow from $265 to either $278 or $291.

One-way fares to Boston would increase by either 25 cents or 75 cents from each town under the two proposals.

Officials from both the MBTA and MassDOT said fares make up about 30 percent of the MBTA’s total revenue, and play a critical role in balancing the authority’s annual operating budget.

The proposals come as the MBTA works to close a $138 million deficit before the beginning of the next fiscal year. Through the elimination of late-night service, reduced spending and increased revenue from advertising, the authority has reduced the once-projected $242 million deficit by 43 percent over the past year, but still has a ways to go.

Efforts are still needed to reduce an almost $7 billion maintenance backlog, officials say.

Pollack said her office is working with the MBTA to develop a more predictable schedule for fare increases in the future.

“Fare increases are a last resort, but may be necessary to ensure that the MBTA can fix its operating budget deficit and redirect resources to maintenance and fixing the system,” she said. “I do believe fare increases should go up modestly every two years on a regular basis, rather than having transit officials wait for a long period of time and then dramatically raise fares.”

But frustration with MBTA service leaves many residents resentful and wary that the higher fares will do any good.

“If it’s going to close the deficit and means safer trains and better upkeep, then that’s fine,” Connor Leewood said as he waited for a delayed train from Attleboro to Boston on his daily commute. “But up to 10 percent is pretty steep, especially for people who don’t make that high of an income.”

Leewood said the financial troubles of the MBTA seem to stem from “poor management,” more than anything else.

“It’s obvious that something needs to be done,” he said.

Others agree.

More than 8,000 commuters attended hearings or sent in feedback during the public comment period last month, and even more expressed concern with fare hikes at separate meetings held by the MBTA to discuss schedule changes.

More than 150 area residents attended a Mansfield schedule hearing last month to protest changes that would eliminate an early-morning train from Mansfield to Boston and cancel stops at the Ruggles station, which serves many medical and educational sectors in Boston. Many of the 50 residents who spoke also opposed the fare increases.

“Everything you are trying to do is negative to this community, but you are trying to charge more,” Michael Anderson of Mansfield said at the hearing.

The following week drew more than 40 residents to a similar hearing in Norfolk, where residents were less upset over schedule changes, but still questioned fare increases after a year of inconsistent service.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the schedule changes are a separate issue from fare increases and will not be voted on Monday, but fiscal control board members will be briefed on the changes at a later time.

He said board members will consider public concerns before making a decision on fare increases, but also noted that among transit systems of comparable size, the MBTA has the lowest fares in the country.

He said fare increases will assist the MBTA in reducing its maintenance backlog and improve the system overall, echoing a statement made by MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola in an earlier press statement.

“Every dollar that we can free up in operating expense is invested back into the system, helping us improve the level of service reliability,” DePaola said.

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