Healey wants MBTA rate reductions for low-income riders

BOSTON — Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey is taking her first steps toward fulfilling a campaign promise to create discounted fares for low-income passengers who rely on public transportation.

A $5 million line item in Healey’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget would allow the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to lay the groundwork for a means-tested fare program.

The first steps include setting up an online application process and hiring staff to ensure the program runs smoothly.

The MBTA is already exploring how much a reduced-fare program would cost, how best to enroll eligible passengers, and what mechanisms are needed to administer the program.

While no final decisions have been made yet. MBTA staff have conducted a feasibility analysis and hope to enter the implementation phase in the coming year. The MBTA Board of Directors has yet to make a final decision on the design of the program.

During her campaign last year, Healey pledged to “pursue low-income fares and unrestricted bus transfers, as well as charting a path to free buses throughout the Commonwealth”.

The Democrat told reporters last week that she wants to make sure “if we’re going to introduce means-tested rates, that we’re doing it the best way we can,”

“That’s exactly why we wanted to set aside the money to study exactly what will be the best product we can offer,” Healey added.

In their first analysis of a reduced rate proposal, MBTA employees defined lower income as 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The reduced rates would apply to all MBTA transit services, including metrobus, commuter rail, ferry and paratransit services.

The program would follow the model similar to other existing discounted rate MBTA programs — a half-priced rate on nearly all single-ride tickets and monthly passes, and a 60% discount for monthly passes in the inner core of the MBTA service area .

The MBTA already has discount programs for students and those age 65 and older.

According to Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group, the push for discounted riders isn’t new.

Thompson pointed to a 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that found that low-income passengers who received a 50% discounted fare took more trips than lower-income passengers who paid a regular fare, including more trips related to with health and social services. More of their rides took place during off-peak hours compared to the average MBTA riders.

That support extends to state legislatures, which have approved similar programs.

Former Governor Charlie Baker blocked those efforts, citing concerns about passing a reduced-fee program at a time when the MBTA faces a host of daunting challenges.

“More research is needed to understand how transportation authorities can implement fare systems that rely on collecting passenger revenue information and to understand what the loss of revenue would be and how that revenue would be replaced,” the Republican wrote in 2021 .

Healey said the $5 million would come from additional revenue collected through the state’s new “millionaires’ tax.”

Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka has stressed the need for reduced-rate programs.

“Public transport is a lifeline for so many working families in the Commonwealth, who use it to get to work, to school and to take children to daycare,” Spilka said last year.

With a new governor, proponents hope the bill will become law.

Boston lags behind other cities, including New York City, which offers lower-income New Yorkers a 50% discount on subway and eligible bus fares, and San Francisco, which offers a 50% discount to those with annual incomes of or under 200 % of the federal poverty level.

Healey’s rate plan comes as Boston Mayor Michelle Wu continues to push for free MBTA rates. There are currently three free MBTA bus routes in Boston with the city picking up the bill. The program will expire at the end of February 2024.