Monday, May 01, 2006

MBTAfare increases: The good and the bad

The MBTA used a delightful Friday afternoon to let slip the news of a new fare hike. It's lousy, and it confirms the worst fears opponents had last time around, but there are some silver linings here.

First, when the last fare hike was made two years ago, many opponents (including myself, in my only appearance ever on NPR) said it would start a vicious cycle: Ridership is down so you increase fares, but that forces down ridership, which forces you to increase fares. Clearly, that's what's happening here.

Some of the same rate hike canards are making the rounds again. The T has the cheapest subway fare in the country, but it doesn't offer free or reduced transfers for most rides, making it one of the most expensive total trips. Thankfully, the new fare structure will include free transfers from subway to bus. Even with that, though, the T offers far less service that New York, Chicago, and DC for the same price. All these lines run into the late-night or 24 hours, while Boston rolls up its tracks by 1 a.m. (depending on the station.

Eliminating the exit fares, free outbound rides and the rest of the irregularities is a small but appreciated item. Decreasing the combo pass price is also a great help.

Charging more per ride for CharlieTicket users than CharlieCard users is something that I find a little troubling. Look, you certainly want to reward the people who use the system the most and keep them as loyal customers, and lower fares for consistent users is a good way to do that. It also creates an incentive for people to use the faster technology (the CharlieCards are wave-throughs, while the tickets have to be manually fed into the system.

My concern, though, is that the price jump for non-traditional T users is so steep as to keep them away from the service altogether. At the very least, make CharlieCards purchasing available at the terminus of each line and branch, so out-of-towners can take full advantage of the better technology. If the T wants to increase its ridership appreciably, it needs to attract these people on the periphery who feel that driving to town is still worth the hassle and cost. Bilking them for an extra 55 cents than other users is just as unjust as an exit fare. These are customers who will see a full dollar jump in fares, all because they aren't aware of the new cards, or are less frequent users. That's bunk.

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