The T, Metro, Featured Story

MBTA Hosts Public Hearing on Planned Fare Hike

A lively gathering of Bostonians crowded outside the Transportation Board Room on Wednesday for a public hearing on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) proposed fare hike, which will go into effect July 1 of this year. About 45 minutes before the event was slated to start, officials ushered the congregation into the hearing room, asking everyone to write down their name and affiliation. One early attendee simply identified as “a pissed off citizen”—a sign of things to come.

As they waited for the meeting to be called into order, individuals paired off with each other to share grievances and express frustration with the proposal. By the time the meeting closed, over 60 elected officials, public servants, local activists, and regular citizens voiced their opposition to the upcoming 6.3 percent increase across all fares.

“We believe it is industry best practice to have modest increases at regular intervals,” said Steve Poftak, the MBTA general manager, who was one of two MBTA officials the public addressed at the hearing. “It does allow us the capability to make investments that improve service.”

Poftak began the hearing by giving a short presentation on the laws, history, and potential effects of the proposal. He explained that state law prohibits raising fares more than 7 percent every two years, and that the July 1 increase would come three years after the last one.

The MBTA expects to raise $32 million from the hike and, according to a model it created, will see a 1.3 percent decrease in ridership. Poftak was quick to point out that the rate increase passed a Title VI Equity Analysis, a U.S. Department of Transportation requirement that forces transit providers to ensure that service fare changes do not have a disparate impact on minority and low-income populations.

He also highlighted some improvements made after the last rate hike, which included 75 new paratransit vans, a full replacement of red line trains, real-time arrival information for buses, several infrastructure projects, and commuter rail locomotive repairs.

Among the most common fares, a one-way bus trip will rise from $1.70 to $1.80 and a one-way subway trip will rise from $2.25 to $2.40 for CharlieCard users. The cash prices for a one-way bus trip will remain at $2.00. For the subway, one-way cash fare will rise from $2.75 to $2.90. All reduced fares will rise by exactly 5 cents.

Public comment began after Poftak’s presentation. Every person was given two minutes to speak, although commenters often spoke through their allotted time and ignored several reminders from the city official keeping track.

The public provided a diverse and personal array of concerns, although all fell consistently within five major categories: the disparate impact on poor communities, affordability grievances aimed at non-payers, potential environmental impact, worries for cyclists and pedestrians, and complaints about the service as a whole.

Six public officials—State Representatives Mike Connolly, Adrian Madaro, Andres Vargas, and Tommy Vitolo, as well as City Councilors Michelle Wu and Althea Garrison—were the first to speak. Caroline Kimball-Katz, deputy chief of staff for City Council President Andrea Campbell, spoke on behalf of her boss.

Wu recently circulated a petition to oppose the fare change, the results of which she entered into public record.

“Tonight I stepped forward to deliver a mandate to the MBTA on behalf of over 2,700 residents who have signed,” she said. “Riders of every T line, every bus, every commuter rail from Boston and beyond have joined together in one voice urging focus on equity and access and rejecting this fare hike.”

Many of the other elected officials signed onto her fear of an unequal impact on poor communities, with Connolly calling it “class warfare” in a time of extreme inequality and Garrison accusing the change of “subsidizing suburbs.”

Darlene Lombos, the executive director of Community Labor United, was just one of many activists joining the cacophony of voices fighting for the working poor, She described her organization as “a coalition of unions and community organizations that try to support working class families in Boston and Massachusetts.”

Lombos challenged the MBTA’s assertion that there would be no disproportionate impact, pointing out that transportation is the second-largest expense for working class families in Boston, behind housing but above health care. She suggested the MBTA offer a reduced fare to families living below 300 percent of the poverty line. The 2018 federal poverty line for a family of four was $25,100.

Affordability concerns weren’t limited to advocates for the working poor. In an interview before the hearing, Norwood resident Paul Capozzoili shared that he spends approximately $324.25 a month for the commuter rail and parking, an expense he can’t justify given how little improvement he’s seen in the past.

Others, while still concerned that the hike would have a disparate impact, worried about a different group: non-payers.

“As a commuter and also a state employee, I find that the fare increase to be ridiculous for several reasons,” Terry Acsi said. “On several occasions, I’ve observed while on the commuter rail lines tickets not being checked. This equals a free ride for some at the costs of others, like me. This is a severe problem.”

Although less numerous than other groups, a select number of citizens were concerned that commuters would turn back to cars if public transportation became more expensive.

Reverend Fred Small, minister for Climate Justice at Arlington Street Church, and Reverend Leslie Sterling, director of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, took to the podium together. They both serve on the steering committee for the Faith-Science Alliance for Climate Leadership, which advocates for environmentally-conscious public policy.

“Every religious tradition forbids theft,” Small said. “Climate change is theft from our own children and from the most vulnerable people on the planet, most of them poor and of color.”

The duo shared their outrage with the hike, accusing the MBTA of moving people back onto the roads and toward the wrong direction on combating emissions.

Brendan Kearney, the communications director for Walk Boston, a pedestrian advocacy group, told The Heights in an interview that he saw a lack of political will, not a lack of funds, as the reason behind the rate hike. Kearney suggested a number of solutions that could increase revenue while keeping the surface safe for pedestrians and free of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The gas tax has gone up once since 1991, and it was for 40 cents in 2013,” Kearney said. “[A congestion tax] was just in the news in New York earlier this week. It’s charging people that go into urban city centers more if they’re going to be driving single-occupancy vehicles.”

The closest to support the fare hike received was occasional acknowledgement of a lack of funds, but even that was always met with a turn back to opposition. The most popular theme by far was the brokenness of public transportation, both in frequency and audience response.

During his speech, Vitolo pulled out a can of Arizona Iced Tea in a wordplay-filled condemnation of the proposal.

“Arizona Iced Tea costs 99 cents,” Vitolo said. “It’s cost 99 cents for 18 years. Eighteen years. And what the good people of Arizona Iced tea figured out is that if you don’t improve the quality of the tea, you don’t increase the price of the tea!”

In one of the most fiery statements of the night, Egan Millard—who self-identified as a “normal citizen,” as many present did—expressed his mounting frustration of living with delays, long commutes, and high expenses.

“A fare increase will place the burden of undoing that neglect squarely on the backs of the people who have suffered most because of it, who are already struggling with the astronomic cost of living,” Millard said. “You turn people away from public transport and force cars, worsening traffic and pollution.

“It’s really hard to believe that we, who have been paying for services that we haven’t received, should be charged more. That’s not how it works in the private sector. If anything, we should be getting refunds!”

In many ways, Millard summed up all of the concerns shared at the meeting in his two minutes—evident in the chorus of “right on” and the throng of journalists asking for his name in the minutes that followed.

Featured Image by Jack Miller / Heights Editor

March 4, 2019