service cuts

The Case Against MBTA Fare Increases -- And How to Move Forward

The MBTA fare increase proposals (presentation, summary) are unnecessary and not even helpful in closing the budget gap. We summarized all the feedback we've received and proposed alternatives to increase ridership and revenue and reduce operating costs.


  1. MBTA fares have more than doubled since 2000, far outpacing inflation and exceeding even the increase in housing prices. Meanwhile the state gas tax has increased only 3 cents and no longer supports the cost of road maintenance, but MBTA riders are being asked to pay their own way.

  2. Commuter Rail fares and parking fees are some of the highest in the nation despite very infrequent service. Record rents and declining wages are forcing large numbers of people out of the city, to places where Commuter Rail is the only transit but is unaffordable. Low ridership has been cited as a motivation for further service cuts, yet when a day trip costs $84 for a family of four, the Commuter Rail is not living up to its potential as an effective regional transportation network.

  3. Ridership is up over 20 percent on all major lines as the city’s population has increased 10 percent in ten years. Trains and buses are slower, more crowded and less reliable than ever. All major rail and bus lines operate over capacity every day and the system does not effectively serve many trips. Failing to increase service by 20 percent is essentially a service reduction. Riders cannot be expected to pay even more without major upgrades such as increased capacity, faster service and new lines — give us a system worth paying for.

  4. Higher fares turn T riders into car drivers and make traffic congestion even worse, unless accompanied by major service improvements or a gas tax increase to make drivingless appealing. With gas prices approaching 11-year lows, commuters see transit fares rising and service quality declining and make the obvious choice. Rather than continue the death spiral of service cuts (yes, eliminating late night service = service cuts) and fare increases until transit is no longer effective and streets are completely gridlocked, now is the time to reverse course and invest heavily in public transportation, including maintaining or lowering fares.

  5. No major investments have been made to the system’s core since the 1980s and we are now paying the price as the MBTA slowly falls apart. The MBTA has made significant progress on reforms but the promised revenue in “reform before revenue” remains elusive. No efficiencies will ever fill the $7 Billion budget gap -- and that's just to reliably run what we have now, without desperately needed upgrades. If we don’t start investing now, the system will only get worse, and it will only cost more when we eventually have no choice. Riders are not responsible for chronic underinvestment and cannot be asked to shoulder the burden of ever increasing debt service payments.

  6. Soaring housing costs and declining wages are forcing many people to move to places with poor transit access. We have repeatedly cut service and raised fares on these "low ridership" services, while ignoring others with great potential.

  7. Governor Baker said there should be no new taxes or fees — apparently not including T riders. The agency’s 4% cost growth is in line with the Governor’s call for a 5% increase in state spending elsewhere. So why is the MBTA Control Board subjecting T riders to a higher standard?

  8. Good transit provides many benefits to all of society — even those who never use it. Public transportation supports dense, vibrant communities where everyone has access to basic needs and the freedom to move around the region. Last winter showed us just how important the MBTA is to the entire state’s economy: without the T, all of our favorite stores, restaurants, institutions and entertainment venues would be unable to attract sufficient customers and employees. Imagine a transit system with the resources to run excellent service every day and make people actually want to use it.

  9. Traffic congestion on our streets and highways is worse than ever because of our failure to upgrade and expand the transit network. Boston EMS ambulance response times have increased 16 percent since 2009, the Boston Fire Department takes one minute longer to respond to calls, and buses spend much of their trip stuck in traffic. Only by expanding transit so it is useful for more people will we create space for essential services and emergency vehicles. Fare increases only put more cars on the road.

  10. Over 100 years after the first subway construction in Boston, the region’s poorest, most underrepresented neighborhoods still lack rapid transit access. Communities such as Chelsea, Roxbury and Mattapan have the longest trip times (often slower than walking) and least reliable bus service. These riders are also most heavily impacted by rising fares, often cutting back on groceries or skipping social events due to the cost of transportation. Special attention should be focused on bringing fast, frequent and more affordable transit to our most vulnerable riders.

  11. Riders are doing their part to support vibrant communities, reduce traffic and address climate change. We should reward - not punish - those who use the MBTA by maintaining or lowering fares across the system and investing in faster and more effective service. Our transit network is a valuable public service, not a profitable business, and it's time we started treating it like one.



Many simple changes could improve the user experience and help alleviate capacity constraints until service can be expanded. The T should experiment with several options in an effort to upgrade service and reallocate inefficiently used resources, and as alternatives to (or mitigation for) a fare increase. In other words, what improvements are we getting for the higher fees?

  1. Instead of a single transfer, allow unlimited transfers within 2 hours on bus, subway and Commuter Rail, to permit trips through downtown and between non-downtown points. Currently it is impossible to go from Roxbury to Chelsea, Everett to Brighton Center, or Roslindale to Brookline (just a few examples) without two fares or a very long trip with a transfer downtown. Removing the barrier would allow riders to make more efficient trips and access more jobs while increasing ridership (and revenue) and reducing congestion in the downtown transfer stations. An unlimited transfer — think of it as a 2-hour unlimited pass — is in effect on transit systems across the country such as Portland, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

  2. Implement all-door boarding on buses and trolleys. Pass users could board at any door and special fare inspectors would conduct occasional inspections, issuing a fine to riders who haven’t paid. Up to 30 percent of Green Line and bus travel time is spent sitting at stops while riders line up in the cold waiting to tap their card. Keeping buses and trolleys moving means faster service, more frequent service, more evenly spaced trains/buses, reduced fare evasion and lower operating costs. All-door boarding is now standard practice on nearly all North American light rail lines and San Francisco has expanded it to all buses.

  3. Reduce Commuter Rail fares on off-peak and weekend trains. As record numbers of urban dwellers leave the region’s core to escape soaring rents, the Commuter Rail has the potential to dramatically improve their quality of life. Yet commuter Rail fares are too expensive, even off-peak trains operate with hundreds of empty seats that could offer a fast new service to riders of all income levels. Thousands of riders endure long trips on crowded buses or limit their economic and social opportunities because of transportation costs. Many more drive choose driving over the high train fare, adding thousands more cars to our streets every day.

    • Extend Zone 1A (subway fare) to include all stations within 12 miles of downtown Boston, roughly the distance to Braintree, Waltham or Lynn, or anywhere within Route 128. It is expensive to provide very frequent service on slow, crowded buses to places like Hyde Park, Roslindale, Waltham and Lynn while train cars run empty.

    • Heavily discount Commuter Rail fares during off-peak periods and on weekends. Chicago and Philadelphia have seen large ridership increases with their $8 unlimited weekend (Chicago) and $12 unlimited (Philadelphia) off-peak passes.

    • Integrate fares between subway, bus and Commuter Rail so that riders can pay with a CharlieCard. Issue transfers valid between the Commuter Rail and a subway or bus line. Add a credit card payment option.

  4. Coordinate bus connections at terminals, stations and transfer locations. Improve scheduling of connecting services and hold buses and trains for close connections during times of less frequent service.

  5. Upgrade bus stops, stations and terminals to improve service quality and comfort, allow more efficient bus and passenger circulation and increase ridership at very low cost.

  6. Implement transit priority measures on city streets for faster, more reliable and less costly bus and trolley service. Faster service and increased on-time performance were among the top requests from participants in the GoBoston 2030 transportation planning process. Many simple signal modifications and street design changes would help meet these goals.

  7. If fares do increase, offer free and discounted passes for low-income riders through social service programs such as SNAP, WIC and MassHealth. Expand student pass programs through cities and university groups. However, the availability of low-income discounts must not serve as a justification for fare increases.


Speak up at a public meeting, submit comments and contact your representatives. Your city and state elected officials need to hear from you; remind them that the MBTA benefits everyone in the state and we must make up for our past mistakes. Otherwise the death spiral of high fares and poor service will continue -- more breakdown, delays and late trains/buses -- until our once-proud transit network falls apart for good.

Raise MBTA Service Quality, Revenue & Ridership, not fares

The MBTA Fiscal & Management Control Board has proposed increasing fares. Two members argued for special low-income fares. The concept of free/discounted fares for low-income riders sounds good but there are very serious risks in creating a two-tier transit system by raising fees for everyone else. As noted by former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, creating a non-egalitarian system goes against our values and is counterproductive because:

  1. Means testing makes fare increases seem more palatable by removing the most common objection (impacts to poor people), thus removing a check on rapidly rising fees.
  2. A two-tier fare system reinforces the idea of transit as a welfare program for poor people; it creates an "us versus them" mentality which amplifies false stereotypes about "lazy, selfish, greedy" poor people.
  3. Many riders have options. Without a similar increase in the cost of driving cars or using taxis, people who have other options will choose to drive or take a taxi, car service or private transit (such as Bridj). The result is a death spiral of lower ridership and higher fares, until the system collapses.
  4. Transit does not operate in a vacuum. As the costs of housing, food, daycare and other necessities continue to rise, people are being forced to move far outside the city where transit access is poor. Once you have access to a car, it is a sunk cost: in other words, you have already paid most of the costs (purchase, insurance, registration, parking). So you’ll be likely to drive it even when you could use transit (ex. grocery shopping) because each trip is basically free. The cost of the gas required to drive to a place with free or cheap parking is far less than a round-trip bus fare.
  5. With fewer T riders and more cars on our streets, traffic congestion worsens, impacting bus travel times and reliability of connections, and raising operating costs (paying a driver to sit in traffic) far more than a fare increase could expect to bring in.

When looking at high-cost services, it is much more sensible to figure out why services are expensive and/or attract low ridership. Many routes do not serve their users and communities well. Service quality improvements such as on-time performance, coordinated connections, longer service hours and higher frequency would go a long way toward increasing ridership and revenue, along with outreach and marketing of these improvements.

It is critical that, rather than increasing fares, we redesign the fare structure and policy to make our services easy to use, offer an unlimited 2-hour transfer to permit trips requiring more than one connection, integrate and adjust Commuter Rail fares (for example, charging the subway fare at inner stations like Hyde Park & Lynn would relieve pressure on expensive, overcrowded bus lines. Implementing a system of off-board fare payment (pay before boarding) would dramatically reduce bus dwell times and reduce operating costs.

Passengers line up to board Route 42 at Dudley Station, increasing operating costs.

Passengers line up to board Route 42 at Dudley Station, increasing operating costs.

Finally, it is unacceptable to ask public transportation users — those who are doing their part to achieve the MassDOT mode shift and greenhouse gas reduction goals, as well as the Vision Zero initiative — to pay higher fees without real service improvements that enhance their quality of life and increase opportunities. Rather than blanket fee increases, the fare structure and policy needs to be rationalized so that the diverse mix of services works efficiently and effectively and does not place add a barrier or disincentive to transit use.

While a fare increase might optimistically raise $23 million, it would not come close to addressing the MBTA budget deficit for FY2017 (currently cited at $242 million), and would pale in comparison to the improvement recommended above. We should also point out that while fares should be collected on all modes, some level of fare evasion is normal for transit services and efforts to collect every last fare experience diminishing returns. Similarly, as the Frontier Group and T4MA point out, cutting transit service doesn't save as much as the FMCB suggests.

If fares do increase along with the improvements recommended above, we would support either a state-subsidized income-based refundable tax credit or distributing free/discounted passes through social service agencies (such as WIC and MassHealth) to offset the burden somewhat. Revenue should not come from the T budget, however, and MassDOT should stay out of the business of administration. While the maximum allowable fare increase is 5 percent at this time, keep in mind that wages are declining, inflation is currently near zero percent, and Governor Baker promised that neither taxes nor fees would rise under his administration.

Podcast 20 - Advocacy Updates: Fares, Late Night Service, Commuter Rail, GLX and Service Planning to make the MBTA network more effective

Podcast 20 - Advocacy Updates: Fares, Late Night Service, Commuter Rail, GLX and Service Planning to make the MBTA network more effective

This show is focused on MBTA advocacy, with the full crew sharing our thoughts on some of the things in the media lately, and which we've been working on.

Fares increases are proposed again despite the absence of a vision for upgrading and growing our network. It's hard to ask people for more money without real improvements. Some say we should give discounts to low-income riders and raise fares for everyone else. We explore why a two-tier transit system is a terrible idea that will lead to a death spiral and actually impact the poorest riders most. Also, if a transit fare is not a tax, is it a fee?

The MBTA board (FMCB) has proposed eliminating up to 28 bus routes, largely without any analysis of what these routes do or how they operate.  A better approach is to figure out why some routes are expensive and/or attract low ridership, such as poor service quality (on-time performance, frequency, connections) and many seem to be designed to fail. The existing late night service is one example, but rather than get rid of it, service should be vastly improved and expanded to full overnight service (don't forget the early morning needs!). Commuter rail come up too.

We talk about the importance of good service planning, the different levels of planning, and how we can not only make small routine changes but also design a better network. Aside from service cuts, no routes have changed since 2008 and a comprehensive review has never been done, even though travel patterns have changed a lot since the 1964 creation of MBTA. Most routes do not meet basic service standards like crowding and on-time performance. How can we plan for upgrades?

The Green Line Extension is way over budget and horribly mismanaged, largely due to schedule pressures, not enough MBTA staff to oversee this massive project (due to austerity) and as a result contractors scamming the T. Are we learning the lessons as the FMCB looks to cut the budget even more? We explain the importance of carrying out the GLX plan which was approved through an extensive public process, and how proposed project reductions would actually cause us to spend more in operating costs to run the line.

Major changes coming to Commuter Rail schedules

Major changes coming to Commuter Rail schedules

Image via Flickr

We recently learned of major schedule changes coming to the Commuter Rail, including service reductions on several lines leaving long gaps between trains. The new schedules, effective Dec 14, were designed without any public consultation. If you have feedback on the changes please contact the MBTA and your elected officials.

Transit Matters believes a frequent, reliable and comprehensive regional rail network is an essential component of a transportation system that provides access and opportunity. The current Commuter Rail system falls far short, so we sent the following letter to the MBTA, MassDOT and others asking for the changes to be postponed until they begin a public process. ...

Mayor Menino Weighs in on Draconian MBTA Cuts, Fare Hikes

Boston's longest serving mayor, has now joined the pool of politicians to opine about the cut and hike proposals and put forth his recommendations for political and financial action. He joins Middlesex and Essex Senator ClarkWoburn State Representative Dwyer, Somerville State Representative Provost, Somerville State Senator Jehlen, and Governor Patrick himself, all of whom have essentially expressed interest and intent to raise the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1991, to solve the Commonwealth's growing transport funding problem.

Menino is clear in his support for the MBTA and the search for a better funding solution in his letter to MassDOT Secretary Davey and Governor Patrick:

As an alternative to fare increases and service reductions, I am eager to work with you, Governor Patrick and the legislature to identify solutions that will address the long-term fiscal debt at the MBTA. Transportation Reform has allowed the Commonwealth to operate much more efficiently, but we also need targeted investment in our entire transportation infrastructure. Despite the severity of the current proposal, it represents a one-year band aid. We are in desperate need of a dedicated revenue source and immediate action is needed to identify sustainable funding for the MBTA. I have long supported efforts to increase the gas tax and am very willing to discuss other revenue options as well. I also hope you consider efforts that may help relieve some of the Big Dig-related debt load that has been unfairly saddled on the MBTA.

Menino has thus far been very hands-off about an official stance on transportation, but has supported it through various initiatives that enable walkability and better health in Boston, including the build-up of bike lanes, support for the introduction of the HubWay bike rental system, and parking freezes within the city of Boston.

While I laud Menino for voicing his support for transit, I also hope he is also willing to offer raising the transit assessment for Boston for the City of Boston to pay more for the transport system that provides its citizens the mobility that enables it to not only be one of the most walkable cities in the US, but also enables it to exist in the first place.

Also on his agenda should be true parking reform and better cooperation with the MBTA to properly allocate road space to higher throughput transit services that force buses packed full of riders to compete with single-occupant vehicles during rush hour.

The current leader in parking reform has been San Francisco's SFPark program, which has enabled San Francisco to maximise the revenue from its municipal lots and reduce the estimated 30% of city traffic that results from drivers circling the block looking for parking with market pricing of all off- and on-street parking.

Further, many cities like New York are reallocating portions or entire lanes of their roads to enable buses to make them more effective at moving people and keep them on schedule. Perhaps the road planners in the Boston Transportation Department need to expand their road design vocabulary and learn how to use the tools available to cities to squeeze more people moving capacity (not car moving capacity) out of their roads through this handy transport game.

We will soon find out if any of these politicians can put their money where their mouth is. Will they actually raise the gas tax and how far behind will public support be?

I will soon be posting a long overdue MBTA service cuts and fare hikes summary post in order to provide an easy, well-collected primer on the issue at hand, where this should go, and how to take action.

A Muddled Call to Arms by the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee as MBTA is Forced to Consider Fare Increases

It may soon cost you more to walk through these gates, but a fare increase shouldn't be the only option on the table.

As the looming fare increase and service cut proposals gain more public awareness in the wake of yesterday's MBTA board meeting, Boston residents, and perhaps the Commonwealth itself, are forced to mull over what options are on the table to deal with the growing gap in the MBTA's operating budget.

Eric Moskowitz from the Globe lays out the situation accurately and succinctly:

If the T does nothing, it faces a projected $161 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, as costs such as utilities, health insurance, and federally mandated paratransit service rise faster than MBTA revenue, the chief sources of which are fares (about $450 million a year) and a percentage of the state sales tax (worth nearly $800 million).

The T faced a similar situation last year but avoided a fare increase by implementing one-time measures such as selling future parking revenue to investors for a lump sum. The T has also tightened pension eligibility, streamlined labor costs (including switching from two operators to one operator on multiple subway lines), auctioned surplus property, and sold ads on everything from station walls to its website.

The T last raised fares Jan. 1, 2007.

Just in time to be a part of this discussion, the MBTA Rider Oversight Committe has released a plea to riders to speak to their representatives and advocate for better MBTA funding, which will hopefully run in tomorrow's Metro:

Riders, now is the time for us to stand up and speak out. The T’s red ink is much worse than you think. Next year, without increased funding, your bus or train could be the one that stops coming. Do we want the transit system we can afford or the transit system that we need? Rally round, and get engaged! Come join us at the public meetings and support the MBTA. Help us by calling your local and state representatives to insist they finally address the T’s funding gap. Fellow riders, it’s our T. It’s time for us to defend it.

In their letter, they speak to the better senses of the public, as does much of the press, trying to inform and arm the public with information to help advocate for a better solution, but many of the more radical options have been left out of the conversation, at least outside of twitter.

The last time New York City had to face these issues a few years ago, local politics included more vocal pushes for alternative funding vehicles to prevent a massive fare increase and service cuts. (They happened anyway because New York politics is a mess and has been one for a while.) Beyond typical ignorant ranting of government largess and inefficiencies, there were calls to start congestion pricing, tolling East River crossings, and even tax local businesses' payrolls (which has not gone over well).

Suffice it to say, all of these seem to be third rail topics that neither the press nor local advocates are willing to propose. While the ROC and others, including Secretary Davey himself, are pointing at the Commonwealth's legislature for relief, the fact remains that none of them are standing behind a unified message of what to ask for from the legislature in terms of bridging the funding gap, especially considering the Commonwealth is already trying to deal with a tight budget for every other state agency.

From my experience on twitter lately, it seems riders are more concerned with the platform experience more than the funding mechanisms behind the MBTA, more quick to bash it for inefficiency and waste than grant the agency a shadow of a doubt and look into reports about the funding situation. Advocates and members of the public in the know need to step up, do a better job to make the facts and options more accessible to riders, and stand behind a more cohesive message.

All I'm seeing is repeated messages of what we don't want and what we don't feel comfortable bringing up. I'll start by throwing my weight behind moderate fare increasescongestion pricingparking reform (market pricing), and better long-term real estate deals on MBTA/state owned property. Perhaps we could get started on making public-private partnerships to assure funding, quality construction, and well-capitalised reconstruction of ageing stations and the Green Line extension, because simply selling naming rights of stations to corporations is really selling out the system.