MBTA board ends 2-year hiatus on fare enforcement

THE MBTA board of directors on Thursday voted unanimously to end a two-year hiatus on issuing fines for fare evasion, but most of the members were skeptical the T’s “non-punitive” approach to enforcement would actually stop riders from jumping turnstiles and sneaking on board buses and Green Line trains for free.

The new fare evasion regulations approved by the board establish fines for two types of offenses – failure to pay a fare and misuse of reduced fare credentials belonging to others. Initial offenses trigger a written warning followed by fines. The fines for failing to pay a fare start at $50 and rise to $100 with the fourth offense; the fines for misusing a reduced fare pass start at $75 and rise to $150 with the fourth offense.

T officials say they intend to hire a civilian fare enforcement team eventually, but right now enforcement will be left to the MBTA police, which has limited bandwidth to address the problem.

The new regulations were required after a revision in 2020 of the state’s fare evasion law made the old regulations invalid. The two-year hiatus in approving new regulations meant the T has had no fare enforcement mechanisms in place since January 2021, meaning riders could board illegally and there was nothing the T could do about it.

Members of the board were eager to close the loophole, but they indicated more work remains on the enforcement end because the new regulations contain no carrots or sticks to encourage fare compliance. As one board member pointed out, riders can just refuse to pay their fines and there’s no penalty for doing so.

T officials say they have no idea how much fare evasion is costing the transit authority. They have retained UMass researchers to study the issue, but other transit systems around the country are experiencing a sharp rise in fare evasion and having difficulty controlling it.

Lynsey Heffernan, the T’s assistant general manager for policy and transit planning, said the agency’s new regulations do not tap the Registry of Motor Vehicles as an enforcement arm by requiring riders to pay their fare evasion fines before receiving a license or registration renewal. Heffernan said obtaining driver’s license information from offenders could have been difficult and the practice is also time consuming for the RMV.

Without some sort of enforcement, however, many board members were skeptical the new regulations will curb fare evasion.

“I’m going to support this, but I’m not really hopeful,” said Thomas Koch, a T board member and the mayor of Quincy.

Koch mentioned that CVS stores in Quincy are not prosecuting shoppers for theft, which he said has created problems because more and more people now think they can get away with stealing. He said the huge influx of federal funds during COVID has also emboldened people. “Everyone thinks everything is free now,” he said.

Board member Bob Butler said more work on enforcement is needed. “We’ve got to figure out some other ways,” he said.

Jamey Tesler, the secretary of transportation, agreed that other ways of ensuring compliance need to be developed. But he also wanted to make sure fines don’t just penalize the poor. He sought assurances from T officials that someone could appeal a fine for fare evasion on the grounds that they could not afford the fare.

The advocacy groups Livable Streets Alliance and Conservation Law Foundation both testified in favor of putting fare enforcement on hold until the T board approves a special discounted fare for low-income riders. “Without a low-income fare, you’re just penalizing people because they can’t pay,” said Catherine Gleason of the alliance.