AP NEWS

Riders Hit Proposed

March 1, 2019
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By Elise Takahama

Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON -- Passengers with first-hand knowledge of the commuter rail system have a lot to say about what steps the MBTA can take to justify what appears to be a likely fare hike.

“I guess 6 percent is in line with the standard rate hike, but I’ve noticed inventory,” said Pete Donato, 47, of Tewksbury, while waiting in North Station after work. “If there are fewer trains, then what am I paying for? I don’t understand where the money’s going.”

Last month, the MBTA released its proposed fare hikes for 2019. The announcement has not been received well, and was slammed at a public hearing in Boston this week.

The proposal would raise fares by about 6.3 percent, meaning an increase from $2.25 to $2.40 on a one-way subway ticket and an increase from $1.70 to $1.80 on a bus ride.

For those who take the commuter rail out of Boston, the hikes are even higher.

A one-way ticket to Lowell would increase by 50 cents, to $10.50, and a one-way pass to Fitchburg would increase by 75 cents, to $12.25. Many people, however, commute to work in Boston several times a week and usually invest in a monthly commuter rail pass, and that monthly cost could jump by $27.75 in the farthest zones.

Riders traveling to and from Lowell would see a hike of $22, increasing to $340 per month. Fares for Fitchburg riders would increase by $25, to $388 per month.

Donato, who works in Cambridge, has been commuting into the city for 11 years and has seen “a bunch of shenanigans” during that time.

The MBTA’s 2012 fare increase of 23 percent in particular was pretty shocking to riders, Donato said.

“It blew my mind that they allowed an increase of 23 percent at once without government regulation or warning to ridership,” he said. “This is a staple resource for people to get to work, and to have fares increase like that with little to no warning was pretty upsetting.”

Keolis, which operates and maintains the MBTA commuter rail system, said in a recent statement that ridership on all lines has increased by 21 percent since 2014. At the same time, performance has improved, with an average on-time performance of 89 percent in the last two years, peaking at more than 93 percent in December.

The commuter rail is also operating 10,000 more scheduled trips than it did in 2014, according to the MBTA.

“Keolis is working with the MBTA to make further improvements to both performance and the customer experience such as on-board credit card retailing and $10 unlimited weekend fares,” Keolis said in a statement.

In the last several years, the MBTA said, funds have been poured into improvements for T and bus riders. The transportation authority purchased new RIDE vehicles for individuals with disabilities, upgraded many buses, launched two new ferries and started replacing the Orange Line cars. The MBTA has also added late-night and early-morning bus service, extended the Silver Line to Chelsea and started the process of hiring more bus drivers.

But commuters don’t always see these changes.

Mary Astle, 54, of Carlisle, takes the Lowell commuter rail two or three times a week to get to work in downtown Boston. She said she’d love to see cleaner trains -- and more of them.

“It’s hard,” Astle said. “With only coming in two to three times a week, it barely makes sense to get a monthly pass. With the hike, probably less sense. ... It makes me want to work from home more.”

Instead of continuing to increase costs for existing riders, Rajesh Mohan, 47, said the MBTA should focus on getting more people to use the trains.

“That would be more efficient,” said Mohan, who lives in Woburn and rides the Lowell commuter rail into work about four times a week.

Raj Pancholi, 46, of Fitchburg, takes the commuter rail into downtown Boston four times a week. The consistent hikes are irritating, he said, but “it is what it is.”

“I would love to telecommute. It’s frustrating when you buy a monthly commuter pass, then spend extra for a T pass too,” said Pancholi, who then takes the T from North Station to work in Downtown Crossing. “But housing is more affordable out there versus neighborhoods here, which is good.”

Another rider who takes the Fitchburg commuter rail multiple times a week said that while he’s thankful the MBTA always tries to put the safety of commuters first, he has some concerns.

“The Fitchburg train is consistently five to 10 minutes late,” said the 42-year-old Fitchburg man, who asked not to be named. “They could take some steps to improve that. .... I’d also like to see more being done to increase access for handicapped individuals.”

Transportation advocates are urging the state to analyze the system as a whole, rather than individual pieces, said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of more than 70 local groups that has pushed for a more affordable, sustainable and reliable riding system.

While the coalition hasn’t taken a stance on the 2019 fare hike proposal, Dempsey said he’s concerned the MBTA is sending a message that people should be getting off the T and getting on highways.

“When we have fares going up and we haven’t raised the gas tax in six years and gas prices are near all-time lows ... the message we’re sending is that people should drive more and that’s counter-productive,” Dempsey said. “We do believe that regular occasional fare increases are reasonable and we don’t want to make it sound like any fare increase is unacceptable, but we do think it’s ultimately a short-sighted policy.”

Kelly McKee, 42, takes the Wachusett line from Concord to North Station every day. On a recent morning, her train was 45 minutes late. It was 11 degrees, she said.

“The MBTA has a real opportunity to get more people to commute,” McKee said. “When they’re publicizing an increase without publicizing how they’ll improve commuting times, it’s not in their best interest.”

McKee just moved to Massachusetts from Philadelphia, and while she said she’d appreciate more trains and better communication between riders and the MBTA, she’s committed to supporting public transportation.

“It’s a good system,” McKee said. “It’s no D.C., New York, Paris or London -- but it could be.”