In order to close next year’s budget gap, Boston’s MBTA transit system is planning to raise fares and cut service. This will be the first time since 2007 fares have been changed.
A detailed analysis released by the Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) last week considered two scenarios with sharp increases. (The report, along with other materials and a listing of planned public meetings is available at http://mbta.com/jointhediscussion) This analysis includes the specific bus routes considered for elimination, a topic I won’t discuss here but one which deserves close scrutiny.
Under Scenario 1, which contains fewer service cuts, the regular Charliecard fare would increase from $1.70 to $2.40 (paying by cash would be slightly more expensive, as now). Under Scenario 2, with more service cuts, the fare would increase only to $2.25. Although large increases in percentage terms, these fares are reasonable when compared with other major U.S. subway systems. The combination of fare increases and service cuts will help the agency keep pace with the agency’s skyrocketing costs of employee health insurance, energy, and system maintenance. Of course, additional revenues from the state government is always a possibility.
However a large number of riders don’t pay the cash fare. Instead, they purchase the unlimited local bus and subway “LinkPass” that was introduced in 2007. The price of this pass will increase also, from $59 per monthly currently to $80 for Scenario 1 and $78 in Scenario 2. The overall logic of the fare structure was only subtly modified, and CTPS notes in their study that “the cash-fare equivalent would decrease or remain virtually the same in both scenarios” for all types of passes — including the LinkPass.
The cost of the current pass is worth about 34.7 single trips on local buses or subway lines. Since the typical month has about 20 work days (40 trips), taking into account a few weeks of vacation, holidays, and personal days, averaging about 34.7 trips per month seems like a reasonable point to incentivize buying a pass for most riders. Put it other terms, current pass holders pay about 87% of the full cash fare for a month of commuting (40 trips). This would stay the same for Scenario 2, but drop to 83% for Scenario 1.
There’s only one problem with this analysis — LinkPass riders use their passes much more than that. With the introduction of the new fares in 2007 the MBTA introduced an “Automated Fare Collection” system, which means raw data about ridership patterns are available. In an analysis I completed last spring with CTSP-provided data, I found that in that year each LinkPass sold resulted in 52.13 subway trips and 12.79 bus trips per month that year. This means the effective price per trip is significantly lower than the “regular” cash fares. The average rider is getting a $26.62 discount per month on the subway alone, paying roughly $1.13 per trip. Of course, many are paying much less — or much more.
Having such a low-cost unlimited pass is unusual. Washington, D.C.’s system charges time- and distance-based fares for each trip, only offering limited passes. New York City’s pass is $104, and Atlanta’s is $95.
Of course, such an inexpensive monthly pass can be justified on several grounds. It could be interpreted as a liberal concession to the city’s large transit-dependent population. However if it is, it is an inefficient one indeed, since LinkPasses are also owned by a large number of well paid professionals. Political logic may also suggest avoiding a detailed analysis of the complete fare structure. Perhaps an across-the-board increase is conceptually simpler to discuss in the 20 public meetings that are planned. However, since increases happen so infrequently and the trouble of 20 public meetings are planned, shouldn’t all aspects of the system’s fares and operations be up for negotiation?
This issue is only one that will be discussed in the coming months. Others include which routes should be changed or eliminated, what additional reforms are possible to reduce the MBTA’s expenses, and what other sources of revenue are possible including a plan for more regular fare increases. Hopefully the process will result in a plan to put the MBTA on a more sustainable financial footing, with sensible trade-offs among the multiple public objectives involved.
> See my previous post “Raising Fares on Boston’s Subway for Safety and Reliability”
> See supplementary information at www.mbta.com/jointhediscussion