Opinion: Raise my fare? Yes please!

Last week Boston’s transportation agency, the MBTA, announced a possible fare increase for subway, bus, and commuter rail services to bring in additional income, expected to go into effect on July 1, 2012. The T, as it’s called by those familiar with it, is struggling with hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, a projected $161 operating deficit for this year, and roughly $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance and spending to keep the aging and worn-out system operating. The T hasn’t raised fares since 2007, while other transit agencies across the country have been steadily keeping up with rising costs with small increases every year.

This delayed increase has caused quite a backlash by riders of all walks of life, arguing over whether they should have to pay more, who should have to pay more, what the best system of increases is, and even whether the T should join other transit systems, notably the Metro in Washington, DC, in charging riders for smartcards. The CharlieCard, as it’s called, provides a 30-cent discount over the $2.00 subway fare and 25 cents off the $1.50 bus fare, and it’s currently available for free from most customer service agents. Unfortunately, many riders use them for one ride and then throw them away, then obtain another one for their next ride at the T’s production expense.

Whatever the method of additional income collection, it’s almost certainly going to come out of the pockets of us riders. That’s inevitable. People will argue against the fare increase until the cows come home, but consider what would happen if somehow an increase was avoided. The generally accepted alternative to increased revenue, in government, transit systems, you name it, is service cuts. Sure, there are plenty of cuts that wouldn’t hurt riders and would just add efficiency to the system, but even once you add those up, they won’t be enough. Running shorter trains on weekend mornings? A slightly smaller electrical bill, maybe less cleaning costs, I don’t know. It’s just not enough.

Cutting maintenance is out of the question, at least if anyone at the T has ever ridden their own system or heard of Penn Central. Right now we already have such things as the Porter Square Waterfall (yes, it’s an underground station – the deepest on the system), fires at Downtown Crossing every few months from ancient electrical wiring, problems with the roadbed on the Alewife extension, and that’s just on the Red Line. Cutting maintenance would be incredibly short-sighted and dangerous to customer safety, and I’m sure nobody at the T believes that’s an option.

The most likely solution is to cut service – fewer trains on weekends and during off-peak hours, maybe fewer trains at rush hour despite constant crowding in my personal experience, maybe even going the route of some smaller commuter rail systems and cutting all commuter rail service on weekends. I already can’t work on weekends because the first inbound train from Worcester would get me there at 11am. Sure, people will start driving to work rather than riding the train, but will enough people continue to ride the train that money will be saved? I don’t know. For sure, though, I’d rather pay a little bit more than have to endure lengthy waits for trains, an even longer commute than the two-three hours it already takes me, heavily overcrowded trains, or having to give up and drive to work. Raise my fare? Yes please!

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