Should The T Keep a Commuter Subsidy?

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 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.

More resources:
> See my previous post “Raising Fares on Boston’s Subway for Safety and Reliability
> See supplementary information at

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Great points. I’d add that because the monthly passes are bought with pre-tax income for most of us professionals they are even cheaper than you stated above. Do you have any data on how many monthly pass holders buy them this way? I feel like we could afford to pay more, or at least could shoulder the bump better than the transit dependent folks buying a day or a week at a time.

  2. The orange line needs drastic improvements and an increase in the level of service it provides for morning and evening rush-hour during the work week.

    The MBTA has a long way to go toward convincing it’s customers that they’ve done all they can to ascertain the funds and man-power necessary to repair and improve it’s service to its patrons.

    If lobbyists in Washington can get there way—can get the funds they need to facilitate improvements for their constituents, then why can’t the “MBTA,” — instead of blaming the economy, the public and making changes in the wrong direction!

    I’ve been riding the MBTA for more than 15 years now and it’s always the same old song and dance and the same excuses as to why the “MBTA” can’t provide a sufficient level of service despite a tremendous increase in ridership, especially during rush hour!

    The MBTA seems to have done next to nothing as far as keeping up with the sheer volume of customers during and leading up to this busy time of day, and yes, I’m referring to both morning and evening rush-hour!

    I have never seen such impropriety in all my life.

    At a time when expedient service is needed most, we are constantly subjected to the abysmal failures of this antiquated and under-run public transit service.

    It is outrageous, the way the “MBTA” runs trains for rush-hour during the week-days.

    I mean really!…The constant stopping of a train in between stops, the frequent holding of trains at a stop for so-called “schedule adjustments,” …during rush-hour?! …That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of…for crying out loud!…What gives, MBTA?…Certainly not you!

    Isn’t it enough that these trains periodically breakdown in between stops because they’re so decrepit, and now we have to deal with these schedule adjustments during rush hour?! — Please, give me a break!

    Don’t let the MBTA fool you! — A large percentage of the time that this happens, it’s hard to believe that there is any “traffic-up-ahead” because you know you just missed the last train more than 15 minutes ago.

    …And what are the “MBTA’s” current schedules for rush-hour supposed to be?…Does it not say train service is to be every 5 minutes during rush-hour? — Well, so much for that!

    I think the last time we all saw 5 minute service-intervals during rush-hour was probably several years ago—-unless of course, there’s a “BIG-GAME” in town or something like that, which again proves my point of the “MBTA” playing cat ‘n’ mouse with everyone.

    They can provide sufficient service for games, but forget about it for rush-hour, right? — Whatever, MBTA—whatever!

    And to top it all off…the train operators constantly scream at customers to move in and not block doors…yet a good 90 percent of the time, these trains are already full to capacity, sometimes even as early as 3:30 in the afternoon during the work week.

    If the MBTA ran enough service leading up to and during rush hour (by putting more trains on the tracks and starting their rush-hour service earlier in the day than it does now), then this unnecessary congestion would not happen in the first place…and there would be no need for such childish antics as yelling at customers to get on an already packed train.

    This “Dog and Pony Show” that the “MBTA” constantly plays for the public has got to stop!

    The “MBTA” should be Ashamed of the way it treats its customers when it comes to providing continuous service during the times it is needed!

    If the “MBTA” says it doesn’t have enough train-operators to run more trains on the tracks and do so, earlier in the day than it currently does just prior to rush hour, then that should be the “MBTA’s” main priority in order to solve the unnecessary congestion that occurs at and even leading up to rush-hour—Not constantly yelling at customers as if that really ever accomplishes any good purpose except to cause more stress for everyone.

    I mean seriously! —- Does the MBTA really expect the public to believe that they just don’t have enough money or haven’t tried hard enough to get needed funds when, yet, they’ve got a considerable number of huge-projects being currently worked on?

    And how about the obvious conflict of interest indicative of the formal complaint process that is available to customers?…All formal complaints are directed to ( 10 Park Plaza, Boston ), the same address as the MBTA’s headquarters. And when a complaint is filed with the Massachusetts AGO, customers are referred to the Department of Transportation at this same address.

    Where is the real and independent agency of oversight for this confounded organization that is our public transit system…?

    Come On, “MBTA,” who do you think you are kidding?!

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