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‘We made history’: Massachusetts low-income transit riders could soon see lower fares, similar to other states

For low-income riders who rely on public transit, Thursday was a victory years in the making.

The MBTA board of directors voted in favor of offering a reduced fare for adults with low incomes across its entire system, moving advocates to tears andmarking the most significant step toward implementing the long-awaited program. Now, the agency just needs to come up with the cash.

The new system, which could start as early as this summer, would allow adults ages 26-64 who earn no more than about $30,000 annually to purchase half-priced tickets and passes for trips on the subway, bus, commuter rail, ferry, and paratransit service.

For some riders, it could translate into hundreds and even thousands of dollars of annual savings.

Advocates got evenmore than theyexpected on Thursday.Originally, the T planned to keep some trips provided by the T’s paratransit service, The Ride, at full price for people with low incomes.

But at theboard meeting, riders urged T board members to reconsider the agency’s decision to exclude “premium” trips, those that originate or finish more than three-quarters of amile from T bus or subway service. Those trips currently cost $5.60.

After hearing from several advocates, Secretary of Transportation Monica Tibbits-Nutt proposed an amendment to also include the “premium” service in the low-income fare program. The board of directors voted to approve it to a standing ovation from advocates.

“Today, we made history,” said Kathy Paul, first vice president of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.

The board’s approval and Governor Maura Healey’s funding proposal for the program pending in the Legislature mean it is closer to reality now than ever before. If the Legislature doesn’t approve the additional funding, the T has said it will adjust its operating budget to make the program a reality.

Advocates, who have been pushing for a low-income fare for more than a decade, celebrated the decision. Most large transit agencies in the United States already offer a low-income fare.

“This long overdue low-income fare program will make it easier for people to get around,” said Reggie Ramos, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a public transportation advocacy group. “This will open new opportunities for people who today face barriers to transportation or have to endure structurally impossible trade-offs between transportation and other fundamental needs.”

The T, which is expected to face a budget gap of about$628 million in the next fiscal year, estimates the program will cost at least $23 million in the fiscal year that starts in July with costs increasing to as much as $62 million per year by 2028. Tibbits-Nutt said including “premium” trips on The Ride could increase costs by about $4 million.

Healey is proposing $45 million of new high-earner tax funds for the low-income fare program, but the Legislature has yet to approve a budget for the coming fiscal year. Healey signed a budget last year with $5 million to launch the reduced-fare initiative.

T general manager Phillip Eng said the T has some of those funds left over to help with the launch and is “optimistic” about the Legislature approving the governor’s funding request.

“The T will find a way to balance all of our needs,” he said.

Advocates are hoping this time is for real.At one of the last meetings of the T’s previous oversight board in June 2021, members instructed the T to present proposals for a nine-month, low-income fare pilot program and begin implementing it as soon as July 2022.

That never happened.

The T expects a new low-income policy systemwide will impactaround 62,000 riders on the agency’s bus, train, and ferry service and 28,000 riders on the T’s paratransit service within the coming years.

Some worry, however, that making paratransit service more accessible, without staffing it accordingly, could overwhelm the system.

Michele Stiehler, the T’s manager of paratransit operations, said that if premium trips areincluded in the low-income fare program, the on-time performance of the entire paratransit system could suffer. The Ride has about 22 percent fewer drivers than it needs for current service levels, Stiehler said.

The T is in the process of increasing starting wages for Ride drivers from $18 per hour to $25-$27 per hour, Stiehler said.

Tibbits-Nutt said more needs to be done to improve service on The Ride.

“We have to do better for this population,” she said.

The T board of directors also voted Thursday to approve two other fare changes. Riders will no longer receive change, from paying cash on board, in the form of a paper CharlieTicket on the Green Line, Mattapan Line, and buses. Riders instead will have to load cash onto a CharlieCard. And the T is now extending its $10 commuter rail weekend pass to include federal holidays that create three-day weekends.

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