Guest Op-Ed: Alarming new survey reveals how high MBTA fares are harming riders

Dear Editor,

On the heels of Governor Healey pledging to fund a permanent low-income fare for the MBTA in her FY25 budget, a groundbreaking survey of riders finds that they forgo meals, medicines, and other necessities as a direct result of the high cost of fares. The MBTA Board  kicked off a formal process to adopt a low-income fare at their meeting on last week and riders and workers were there to make their voices heard on how a low-income fare would be life changing. Here’s what riders are saying:

“Transportation costs, rent, groceries, medical costs, and other costs are all rising rapidly and that puts a lot of pressure on us,” said Jie Zhen Li, MBTA rider and Chinese Progressive Association member. “There are often service disruptions or delays for the Orange Line, which would make us get to work late and impact our wages, further causing us stress. Low-income workers should receive a low-income fare that is affordable and allows us to enjoy high-quality public transit services.”

“I use public transportation daily, and several times every day, and I would love for this fare to be approved by the MBTA Board” said Oneida Mejia, Chelsea resident and MBTA rider. “In Chelsea, most people travel everywhere by public transportation daily. When a low-income fare is approved, we hope that it will be accessible to all low-income residents, and that there will be no barriers that prevent people from obtaining it.”

The rider survey underscores how unaffordable fares are having a harmful effect on where Massachusetts residents can live and work, and on the quality of their day-to-day lives. A survey of over 300 MBTA riders across the state from November 22 to December 8, 2023 found the following: 

• More than 50 percent of respondents found the cost of fares too high to afford.

• 68 percent of respondents said they would use the MBTA more if the fare was half the current cost. 

Governor Healey’s bold commitment to funding a low-income fare program would transform the lives of tens of more than 60,000 Massachusetts residents who count on the MBTA. For more than three years, MBTA riders and workers have united to demand a low-income fare and with the MBTA Board meeting, transit justice and affordability are within reach. As the report shows: 

• A low-income fare would benefit up to 63,000 riders by the end of a five-year implementation period. 

• Riders would save about 50% on fares. 

• For a daily rider on the bus and subway, this would save $720 a year, while a Zone 5 Commuter Rail rider would save almost $2,000 a year. 

Survey participants said they use the MBTA to get to a range of destinations and MBTA riders continue to make daily sacrifices and face financial hardships due to the regular cost of riding the MBTA. Survey responses included:

• Not paying rent to afford bus costs 

• Skipping meals or cutting back on groceries 

• Not paying phone bills and basic necessities

• Not filling prescriptions 

• Skipping medical appointments 

• Walking or biking instead of taking the bus or train

“It’s clear that transportation is one of the biggest needs for those in our community seeking to take advantage of employment opportunities or accessing services,” said Mike Vartabedian, co-Chair of the Public Transit Public Good coalition and Assistant Directing Business Representative of the International Association of Machinists District 15. “This report shows that people are skipping meals, medicines, and appointments, just because they cannot afford the MBTA fare. These stories underscore the urgent need for a low-income fare program that takes into account the heavy financial burden borne by riders. We are so gratified to see the Healey administration and the MBTA taking real action to make the low-income fare a reality.” 

Public Transit Public Good Coalition

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