Sunday, July 14, 2024

A screen installed at Alewife Station in Cambridge as part of the MBTA’s new fare collection system. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The MBTA is preparing to launch its long-delayed, billion-dollar fare collection system – and with it, a crew of “fare engagement officials” who will check whether subway and bus riders have paid their fares and cite those who have not.

In the process, the T will reportedly train those ticket-checkers to “minimize the effects of any unintended biases during interactions with passengers,” according to bid documents. Still, transit advocates suspect the process – which will be installed and operated on a technical level by a private equity group – will lead to harassment for minority groups.

They wonder too if if making bus travel free, as is already the case on some Boston lines and in some regional Massachusetts transit systems, is a better solution to avoid confrontations in the first place.

The T is looking at a potential $859 million budget gap by 2028, The Boston Globe reported in January, despite Gov. Maura Healey promising to double state funding for the T.

The new fare collection system is supposed to bring in $8 billion in revenue over the next decade – but the program itself is set to cost nearly a billion dollars, and is years overdue.

The T’s new fare collection system is years late on implementation. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The MBTA has been working on the new fare collection system, known as AFC 2.0, for more than seven years. It is intended to allow riders to pay for fares by tapping credit cards and phones as well as Charlie Cards, making it easier to transfer from subways and buses to commuter rail trains and to pay without having to go to a machine and add money to a Charlie Card. Fare readers will go in the back of buses and trolley cars to speed up boarding and make routes run faster, the T says.

A conglomeration of Cubic Corporation and the John Laing Group won the bid for the massive project in 2017. Cubic, which operates fare collection systems for transit agencies around the world, including New York City’s MTA, was supposed to handle installation and operation with financing from John Laing. But the project, which was originally scheduled to go online by 2021, has seen significant delays, in part due to the Covid pandemic but also because of technology issues and privacy concerns.

The MBTA agreed in 2020 to a nearly 30 percent increase in the project’s cost – to $935 million from $723 million. Officials said the “reset” was necessary to add needed equipment and “recalibrate privacy policy agreements.”

Instead of free fares, a new department

According to the Commonwealth Beacon, the MBTA spent $532 million on bus service and collected $55 million in fare revenues in 2022. Advocates including Stacey Thompson, executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, say such relatively low revenues brought in by buses are not worth collecting aggressively. Making buses free, they argue, could make it easier to use the T and even boost revenue via transfers – which still aligns with the agency’s goals.

“We could decide not to do this on buses,” Thompson said. “If we make buses free, then we’re creating a point of transfer for the fare-collection process – the vast majority of riders are transferring to the rail line, so they’ll pay anyway. That is a potentially creative solution.”

Three Boston bus lines have already been operating fare-free under a pilot program that Mayor Michelle Wu is looking to extend, according to the Commonwealth Beacon, and the MBTA has community talk sessions underway to look at creating a reduced fare for low-income T riders called for by the governor.

Meanwhile, according to bid documents, the new fare collection system has demanded the creation of a Fare Engagement Department “to support the riding public in making the behavioral changes required to ensure the long-term sustainability of fare revenue and to support a positive customer experience related to fare payment.”

In practice, that appears to include payment inspectors. While riders will be able to board buses via any door, “at any point during their trip, the customer may be required to present their proof of payment to a fare engagement official who will check that the customer has paid the appropriate fare,” bid documents say. “Customers without proof of valid payment are issued a warning or civil citation.”

“If the goal is to get more people on transit, and that is in conflict with collecting fares and making fares high, that means we need to be asking different questions,” Thompson said.

The Merrimack Valley experiment

Noah Berger is administrator of the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, which has been testing free rides. (Photo: Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority)

The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, a transit agency north of Boston, is asking those questions too since making its buses fare-free in March 2022. One thing is already clear, according to administrator Noah Berger: Ridership has skyrocketed.

Ridership is 50 percent higher – not just over the previous year, but over the last pre-pandemic year, Berger said. In November, there were 237,000 people riding the system’s buses compared with 145,000 a year earlier and 156,000 in November 2019. While he did not want to comment on potential MBTA policy, Berger said his agency’s analysis of bus fares showed it was making only about 24 cents per each dollar fare before those fares were ended.

“That’s a really inefficient and clunky way of getting revenue … the more we looked at it, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze,” Berger said, adding that it also took about a year of fare-free rides to see ridership climb to its current levels. “Sometimes, with innovations in transit, you have to have a little bit of patience to see results, but once they came in the results were unassailable.”

The fare-free policy is being paid for through this year with a $500,000 grant from the Boston-based Barr Foundation. An adjoining study was designed to examine how fare-free bus rides help local merchants and residents in ways beyond immediate transit, he said.

“Benefits to the local economy, people being able to live full lives – those are the kinds of things we’re hoping to document,” Berger said. “Everyone is invested in making [fare-free rides] permanent, we just have to do it right. We need to document everything to make it sustainable.”

Privacy concerns

Dwaign Tyndal is executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment in Roxbury. (Photo: Climate Justice Alliance)

Dwaign Tyndal, executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment in Roxbury, said the approach at the cash-strapped MBTA is focused on fare collection at the expense of the people trying to ride public transit.

“We got stuck behind developing a business relationship with a private firm, and that’s not the best way to go about it,” Tyndal said. “I don’t see how this is going to work for communities.”

One concern is privacy. Cubic’s fare collection systems are under the umbrella of a larger company that provides surveillance and intelligence software to government agencies – and while at the time of winning its T contract Cubic was a publicly traded company with some requirements for transparency, it went private when acquired by Veritas Capital in 2021. Cubic did not respond to a request for comment.

Having a for-profit, private company in charge of the MBTA’s fare collection is a mistake, Tyndal said: “The common good is compromised with this level of privatization. We don’t want to be right, but we believe at the end of the day the private sector will make profits in ways that may harm our population, our communities.”

Tools for training

Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts speaks in January 2020 to the Cambridge City Council. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

Another concern is what happens when collectors try to verify fares on crowded buses.

“This could potentially impact protected classes who have historically had issues with enforcement, particularly on the MBTA,” Tyndal said. “What level of transparency and oversight will the community have in this process? … We see that corners will be cut, if not on the front end then 18 months from now. What type of remedies will we have?”

Thompson, of the LivableStreets Alliance, doesn’t believe “there’s a practical way to put a T ambassador on the bus for fare validation.”

Plans are vague. The MBTA has not said how many “fare engagement officials” it will hire for its new department or their cost, how those officials will determine a rider’s ID or how the agency will be clear about who they question or where.

The agency has promised “extensive training to provide staff with the tools to ensure an equitable, fair, and effective proof-of-payment process and to minimize the effects of any unintended biases during interactions with passengers.”

An MBTA spokesperson said the agency was “cognizant of concerns regarding inequities in fare enforcement and is committed to ensuring fairness.” Between $126,000 and $210,000 is budgeted for trainings beginning in June on such topics as youth engagement, community intelligence, customer service, deescalation and accessibility “with a focus on reducing the impact of unconscious bias and to minimize the potential for conflicts. For example, staff will be required to systematically attempt to check all riders’ fare payment onboard vehicles to minimize discrimination and bias.”

Kade Crockford, Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the organization has worked with the T to make sure fare collection will be equitable and praised the agency’s aims – but is wary. “Intention and impact are different things, so the ACLU will be watching,” Crockford said.

While Thompson said she is glad the T will hold trainings, which were “a long time coming,” Tyndal was more skeptical.

“If they were serious about that,” Tyndal said, “they would have had it in place before.”

A version of this story appeared originally on HorizonMass.