Report: The T could lose more than $30 million under new fare system

A recent report suggests that a new MBTA fare collection system, slated for 2023 implementation, could push fare evasion above the projected $30 million the T calculated.

But transit advocates say the problem is larger than fare evasion, and that the concern should be more along policy lines.

The new report, titled “​​The MBTA’s Looming Bus and Green Line Fare Evasion Crisis,” released on Wednesday by the Pioneer Institute, says the new fare system would use “tap and go,” allowing for contactless fare collection. The new system would allow for front and rear door fare collection on the Green Line and buses, and is planned to cost $935.4 million, according to the institute.

“While faster travel times are important, the problem with the current plan is that the cost of hiring the number of enforcement staff needed to avoid rampant fare evasion would be counter-productive,” said Greg Sullivan, who co-wrote the report with Andrew Mikula.

What the T says

When asked for comment, T officials stressed the importance of fare collection.

“Fare collection is a critical part of the MBTA’s future revenue growth, and that’s why the Authority is developing a comprehensive rider-oriented plan and making targeted investments in technology and infrastructure,” a statement from the T said. “With a heightened focus on equity, the MBTA is implementing a system that generates much better data and offers more flexibility with fare rules and products to facilitate the development of responsive solutions to policy needs. The Fare Transformation Initiative, with a focus on equity and service efficiency, is an important part of the MBTA’s ongoing efforts.”

What advocates say

But transit advocates say perhaps the T’s focus shouldn’t be on fare collection, but on policy instead.

Josh Ostroff, interim director for Transportation for Massachusetts, said there will be “trial and error” when it comes to a new fare collection system. He also noted that there’s “always tradeoffs” when it comes to policy, as well as fare policy, and fare technology.

While he said he understands the report’s focus on fare collection, he said there are other areas the T needs to improve.

“They are concerned about fare collection, which is understandable, but the MBTA needs to focus on improving performance, reliability, [and] customer and rider experience,” he said.

He also said all-door boarding “has been an important part of that on buses and on light rail.”

The report only focuses on fare collection, he said.

“The way that this report is framed, you would think that the MBTA is just in the business of collecting fares,” Ostroff said. “Fare collection is an important part of it, but I’m concerned the report completely missed the point of public transportation.”

The point, he said, is equitable access, as well as taking a look at reducing carbon emissions, and other areas.

“My perspective is let’s have a much more strategic discussion on fares,” Ostroff said.

Stacy Thompson of LivableStreets Alliance also stressed the importance of equitable access and questioned why the T doesn’t have a complete low-income fare policy — the T does provide reduced fares for those with disabilities, senior citizens over 65, some middle and high school students, and people with low income between 18 and 25. The authority also allows children under 11, the legally blind, military in uniform, firefighters and police, and government officials to ride for free.

When Thompson heard about the new fare system, she said for her and other advocates, concern was raised over why the T wasn’t considering its fare policy first.

“It’s part of a larger issue that I don’t think is going to cause more… fare evasion,” she said. “I think that what you’re seeing is a now multi-year pattern of putting technology before policy.”

While she said the new collection system will help in some areas, Thompson added “people are people and they’re still going to interact with the system,” something that technology can’t address.