Fares will rise in July on MBTA trains

Travel on the MBTA's subway and commuter rail network will cost more starting July 1 after the authority's oversight board approved a fare-hike plan Monday, securing tens of millions of dollars more in revenue every year that leaders say is necessary to continue service improvements and close a budget gap.

The increases average about 5.8 percent, but vary by travel type, and the board ultimately agreed to back off earlier proposed increases in bus fares. Under amendments made to the plan during Monday's meeting, all bus rates as well as various reduced-cost passes will remain level, and the MBTA cannot implement additional fare hikes for another three years, other than changes to accommodate a new automated collection system.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, thousands of commuters spoke out in opposition, and the first hour-plus of Monday's meeting saw another stream of public comments against the plan. Even some members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board recently expressed frustration at the MBTA's reliance on riders to generate new funding.

Ultimately, though, the board — convened in 2015 to stabilize the MBTA following a chaotic winter — voted 4-0 to approve the fare increases.

Monica Tibbits-Nutt abstained from the final vote, calling the move "premature" due to a lack of specific information about how the new revenue will fund short-term improvements. She had earlier proposed the amendment to block additional hikes for the next three years rather than the two years currently required by law.

"We keep talking about improving service, and we're just not doing it," Tibbits-Nutt said. "Riders and the public have a right to see things actually improving. I don't think, judging by the conversations we've had now, we would be able to show improvements and show organizational change within two years. I'm trying to buy staff time to justify another fare increase, and I think they need three years at best."

The vote drew quick criticism from several public figures who had spoken out against the proposal. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who submitted a petition to the board with 3,200 signatures opposing the hikes, said in a statement that the protections for bus rates and discounted passes were encouraging but that the overall vote was "disappointing and frustrating."

A single ride on the subway will now cost $2.40, up from $2.25, while a monthly bus and subway LinkPass rise from $84.50 to $90. The largest increase by dollars will be on the commuter rail, where monthly passes for the most distant zones will jump by up to $27.75.

Initial projections indicated the higher fares would bring in about $32 million in new revenue for the MBTA, but leaving bus and discount-pass costs unchanged should reduce that total figure to about $29.5 million, officials said Monday. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she was "confident" the board could find a way to make up the difference.

"I think the Control Board did a very thoughtful job of balancing the MBTA's need for revenue in order to make the improvements that are customers are calling out for and the impact the increases will have on riders," Pollack said. "That's their job, and I thought they tackled it quite rationally."

As part of Monday's action, the MBTA also voted to make $10 weekend passes on the commuter rail a permanent option and to seek new partnerships with universities to expand student offerings.

Leaders argue the fare hikes, although unpopular among the public, are necessary to fund investments in service quality. Projections indicate the MBTA's deficit would grow in fiscal year 2020 — when leaders have proposed a $2.1 billion budget — if not for a combination of increased fares and cost-cutting measures, although board members urged Monday that the new revenue should go toward customer-facing investments.

"I am a regular rider, and I share the frustrations," Pollack said. "But the taxpayers increase their contributions by a couple percent a year. The cities and towns do it by a couple percent every year. It's important that the riders make this modest increase to make the kinds of investments that will improve service. We heard frustrations over fares, but what we really heard was frustration over service. The only way we can make the service better is to have the resources to invest in the T."

When the FMCB convened on Monday, the proposal before them was for a set of fare increases averaging 6.3 percent, including a 10-cent-per-ride hike on bus trips and a range of changes on reduced-cost ticket types. But board member Brian Lang pushed for those fares to remain level, and fellow members agreed it was a worthwhile way to protect low- and fixed-income riders.

Lang, who last week called raising fares without pursuing other revenue sources "completely wrongheaded," even proposed linking any future increase to state action. An amendment he proposed would not allow a fare hike for three years unless legislators enacted two from a list of three policies: a gas-tax increase, a 10-percent minimum fee on rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, or a congestion-pricing system.

"We have an opportunity here to use a little leverage," he said. "This is our opportunity before a given point in time to raise the stakes and to call other decision makers who have certain powers to task."

After several of his colleagues expressed trepidation, Lang withdrew the suggestion. But his broader point about the need for support to come from beyond the T's ridership found traction, both with transit leaders and with members of the public.

Joseph Aiello, the board's chairman, said he wants the FMCB to get more involved in policy discussions on Beacon Hill and asked for a briefing at upcoming meetings on various legislative proposals to increase transportation revenue.

"There's certainly great interest in that," he said. "Over the next three weeks, we're going to attempt to have a consensus on that."

Several bills filed propose rideshare fees and congestion pricing similar to Lang's idea, albeit with different figures and mandates.

"I think at some point, we have to move beyond talking about gas tax, congestion pricing, (rideshares)," Tibbits-Nutt said. "We haven't had the mechanism to do that. We need to find the mechanism to do that because we are running out of time to find different revenue streams and also running out of time to take the climate-change issue seriously."