Heavy demand curbs MBTA pass subsidy initiative at UMass Boston

University of Massachusetts Boston students in April did something their chancellor later called “quite remarkable” — voting to raise their own fees to further subsidize MBTA passes.

“About half of our students commute on the T. It’s a significant expense for them,” interim chancellor Katherine Newman said at a UMass Trustees meeting earlier this month. “If there’s one thing in the world I could move, it would be the cost of their commute, because it’s really quite extraordinary.”

Three weeks after Newman made those comments, so many students had set out to winnow down their commute costs that UMass Boston transportation officials on Friday informed students that the new funding had been exhausted due to an “overwhelmingly positive response” and the additional discount would no longer be available.

In their April student election, UMass Boston students approved a referendum creating a “UMass Boston MBTA Subsidy Fund,” and charging students a new $20 per semester fee to go into that fund. The question proposed a “starting subsidy” of 50 percent, as opposed to the 11 percent discount on semester passes offered through the MBTA.

After the MBTA raised its fares in July, a four-month semester pass for subway and local bus rides, at the 11 percent discount, now costs participating students $320. Four monthly passes at regular price would total $360, and individual subway rides cost $2.40 with a CharlieCard and $2.90 with cash.

The ballot question contemplated a tipping point where the extra funding would run out and included the line, “Passes will be sold at this percentage off until the money in the fund is exhausted, at which point the subsidy will return to the 11 percent already provided by the MBTA.”

“Due to the high demand, the funding for this program has been exhausted, and we are no longer able to offer the 50 percent discount for the fall 2019 semester,” UMass Boston director of transportation services Chris Sweeney wrote in a Friday email to the university community. “The Office of Transportation Services will still offer an 11 percent MBTA semester pass discount for all students until September 6, 2019.”

Sweeney said the 50 percent discount will be applied on a “first-come, first-served basis each semester” and that students who applied for but did not receive the larger subsidy will be given the option to purchase their pass at the 11 percent discount, or request a refund.

University spokespeople did not immediately respond to questions about how many students had applied for or received the 50 percent discount, or how much money was in the subsidy fund.

The Mass Media, the independent student newspaper at UMass Boston, reported that 492 undergrads voted in the April elections, and the MBTA subsidy ballot question passed with 52.4 percent of the vote. A separate question that would have increased the student activity fee by $11.50 to support costs like club programming and student events, failed with 52 percent of undergrads in opposition.

The vote, which Newman described as a “self-tax,” increased the annual student activities fee by $40, bringing what had been a $76 charge last year to $116. The technology fee at each UMass campus also rose from $250 to $350 this year – to fund initiatives system officials said include improvements to wireless connectivity, library subscriptions, expanded online storage and digital learning materials – for a total of $466 in mandatory fees at the Boston campus.

In-state undergraduate tuition at UMass Boston rose 2.5 percent, or $347, this year, from $13,840 to $14,187. A 3 percent increase bumped out-of-state undergraduate tuition up to $34,649 from $33,640.

With room, board, tuition and mandatory fees, the total cost of attendance before financial aid for a Massachusetts resident undergraduate at UMass Boston this year clocks in at $29,903, an increase of $878 or 3 percent over the previous year.