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March 29, 2024

MBTA to offer half-priced fares

Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt stands at a podium in front of a group of advocates Image I Courtesy of Chris Lisinski, State House News Service Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt celebrates with advocates on Thursday after the MBTA Board of Directors approved a new low-income fare option.

Tens of thousands of MBTA riders are about to gain access to half-priced fares.

Years after public transit advocates launched a campaign to roll out a widespread low-income fare at the T, the agency's board of directors stamped its approval on a formal plan that will provide an option to riders who earn less than their peers but do not qualify for one of the more narrowly-tailored existing programs.

"This is an amazing day," Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who long pushed for a low-income fare expansion when she served on the MBTA board's predecessor, said. "This is 10 years in the making."

The program will likely launch this summer, according to MBTA General Manager Phil Eng.

Riders who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- which in 2024 is about $30,120 annually for a single person or $62,400 for a family of four -- will qualify for MBTA fares at half the usual cost.

Yinchun Liang, a Charlestown resident, home care worker and advocate with the Chinese Progressive Association, said the prices of the T's monthly passes can be especially daunting for riders who rely on the system every day.

"The cost of living is increasing very rapidly. Our wages are staying stagnant, which takes a toll in our daily lives," Liang said through an interpreter. "For a low-income family like ours, it is really challenging to afford the $90 monthly pass."

The reduced fares will apply to all travel across the MBTA's network, including commuter rail, ferries and the RIDE paratransit service.

The original proposal excluded the RIDE's premium service area, but board members agreed via an amendment that Tibbits-Nutt offered to add that into the mix, too.

"It's everything," the secretary said after the meeting. "We've got it all now."

Activists who have spent years fighting for the change showed up in force to Thursday's meeting, clad in red or blue T-shirts reflecting their organizations, and they broke into vocal cheers right as the vote closed.

MBTA officials have estimated the program could cost roughly $25 million in fiscal 2025, then rise to between $52 million and $62 million per year once fully implemented by fiscal 2029. Once demand ramps all the way up, the T projects about 62,000 train, bus and ferry riders will take advantage, plus 28,000 people who use the RIDE paratransit service.

They said Thursday that expanding the option to the RIDE premium service would add another $4 million annually to the cost and impact about 45,000 trips.

Supporters pointed to Gov. Maura Healey's election as a key turning point for the idea of a widespread low-income fare at the T.

Healey and lawmakers agreed to put $5 million into the current year's state budget to fund the groundwork for standing up the program, and the governor proposed another $45 million to cover its costs in her fiscal year 2025 spending bill. 

It's not yet clear if the House and Senate, which will debate their own budget rewrites in the next two months, will agree to steer money toward the T for the new fare option.

"For the low-income fares to work well, the House and Senate must ensure that funding is included in the final state budget," Transportation for Massachusetts Executive Director Reggie Ramos said. "We look to Beacon Hill to ensure ongoing, consistent and permanent revenue support for the low-income fare program through the coming years."

Asked how the T would find funding if the Legislature does not greenlight the additional investment, Eng replied that the agency is "moving forward" using the $5 million already appropriated and "optimistic" lawmakers will be on board.

"Should they not, the T will find a way to continue to balance all of our needs. We know how important this is," he said. "But I'm really optimistic that the $5 million there was intended to be followed up with other funding sources."

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