MBTA Math: $4 Minus $2.80 Equals $4

I don’t begrudge the MBTA for charging fares for its services.  Actually, I think it is very important that the T get its fare structure right.

Unfortunately, the T never has gotten one particular aspect of its fares right: monthly passholders pay full fare in cash when they ride on a higher-level service.  A pass might be good for several dollars credit against the fare on one service, and not a dime on another.  The T inexplicably fails to give passholders the full value across the entire system that they purchased for one particular service.

An illustration might help.  There are two levels of express bus service, inner express and outer express.  The outer express bus generally travels to more distant stops.  An $89 inner express bus pass is good for the entire $2.80 inner express bus fare.  Not surprisingly, the pass is not good for the $4.00 outer express bus; there is a more expensive pass for that bus.  But here’s the riddle: if I offer an inner express pass good for a $2.80 fare, and the actual fare is $4.00 for the outer express bus, I only should have to pay an extra $1.20 cash, right?  Not so, at least on the MBTA.  Passholders receive no discount on the more expensive service.  They pay full fare, even though they hold a pass that would entitle them to credit for all of the fare on a different bus.  (And as an aside, there is an additional complication that the T charges different cash fares and prepaid pass/charlie card fares).

This has been a problem for years.  It is most obvious with the flexible passes for the express bus, commuter rail, and boat, because there are multiple levels of service.  However, “Link Pass” on the stored value card offers no solution, except to add a further technological hurdle to the administrative one.  Fare-takers on the commuter rail and boat don’t have the equipment to verify that a rider has a valid “Link Pass” on their stored value card.

To their credit, T fare takers typically are generous when it comes to making accommodations to passengers to ameliorate this nonsensical no-discount policy.  But wouldn’t it be better if the T used a more rational fare structure?  A $4 fare, minus a $2.80 credit for a monthly pass, ought to result in a $1.20 cash fare.

Grabauskas Retrospective; What Now for T?

Say what you will about Dan Grabauskas; he is a political survivor.  The public servant who reformed the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles resigned under pressure from Governor Patrick and his appointee James Aloisi today, nearly a year short of the end of his five-year term as general manager of the MBTA.  The Democratic governor will have his chance to appoint a successor, but the bitter partisan flavor probably will linger with voters for some time.  The tab for buying Gov. Patrick an extra nine months of direct control of the MBTA: $327,487.  I hope that turns out to be a good investment, but at the moment it’s not so clear that Messrs. Patrick and Aloisi gave taxpayers a good deal.

In 2005, Grabauskas took the job of general manager with a clear vision.  The T would treat riders like customers; the system would be reliable, clean, courteous, and safe.  But mainly clean.  And accessible; inaccessibility “impacts not only on the disabled, but on parents with children in strollers, as well.” Grabauskas professed to be a neatnik; he was particularly concerned about the condition of elevators and escalators.  He apparently believed that if he made the T a comfortable place to be, riders would flock and revenues would soar.  And, of course, he wanted to control costs.

So four years later, how did he do?

Grabauskas never shrunk from the gaze of his “customers,” for example writing a regular Q+A column in the free daily paper Metro, and appearing more than once on WBUR public radio.  He was determined to keep riders safe; he initiated random, highly visible police screening checkpoints.  He committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make the T more accessible, installing announcement screens and elevated platforms on the Green Line.  He resisted union contract demands and agreed to wage increases only after being overruled by a labor arbitrator.  The T renovated the Charles Street station and installed a new train control system on the Red Line that permitted more frequent service.  And there is the electronic fare system.

The list goes on.  Grabauskas was nothing if not engaged in the goings-on at the T.  Perhaps one can disagree with him on policy matters — for example it might be reasonable to question the wisdom of a having a broke organization with heavy capital needs spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to meet the unique requirements of less than 0.1% of T riders — but the man demonstrated integrity and dedication to his “customers.”

But many things never changed.  Yes, the trains still are slow and late.  Yes, the escalators have at times been scandalously unreliable.  Yes there still are door-openers on the  Red, Green, and Orange Lines.  Yes, Kenmore Station still is under construction nearly five years later.  No, Dan Grabauskas does not commute to work on the T.  Yes, the T still is broke.

No Cell Zone

No Cell Zone

But none of those were the reasons that Governor Patrick and his appointees gave for the reasons they had lost faith in Grabauskas.  The breakdown occurred, they said, because two Green Line drivers in two years apparently had ignored traffic signals for different reasons, and Grabauskas was not in Washington, D. C. when the NTSB released its report on one of the accidents.  And there was a power outage on the Green Line.  That’s it.  Never mind that Grabauskas nearly overmanaged the aftermath of the Government Center Green Line collision by banning cell phones from drivers.  And never mind that he was on an unpaid budget-related furlough at the time the NTSB report was released.  And never mind he is not the T electrician.

No matter; Grabauskas is out, but to Gov. Patrick’s likely chagrin, the former T general manager emerges from the tussle virtually unscathed.  That isn’t true for the Governor and his appointees.  The termination looks like short-term political retribution — at taxpayers’ expense.

Unfortunately, the real loser here looks to be the T.  The authority is leaderless at a critical time where the patchwork of agencies is being reexamined and when the modes of transportation finance are in flux in a way they have not been in memory.  The Governor has made noises time and again that he is a friend to transit.  Now he has an opportunity to go from words to action.

Confused Machine Sells Two Monthly Passes for the Price of One

The MBTA’s vaunted three-year-old electronic fare system keeps revealing its quirks. Last month I purchased an express bus pass from a vending machine and got a surprise. The machine does not sell a monthly pass into the contactless stored value card, but it will print flexible plastic passes that are electronically encoded and printed on their face with the fare or zone. So I tapped on the computer screen and paid with my credit card and I received a printed monthly express bus pass through the right-handed slot on the machine. And then I told the machine that I wanted a receipt and out of the left slot what popped out?

A second express bus pass, with an identical monthly fare! Two passes for the price of one!

Buy one get one free

Buy one get one free ... oops!

I was confused so I asked the station attendant what the second pass was all about. He said that I must have paid twice, and that the pass was indeed a second monthly ticket to the bus. He recommended that I write the machine number and return the pass to the monthly pass office at a different station, when the office reopened. He figured that I must have paid for the extra pass.

But surprise! Later I confirmed that the second pass was indeed a live monthly ticket and not a receipt — it is accepted by card readers on the express bus — and best of all, my credit card only was charged once — meaning I only paid for one of the two passes! I’ve heard that I’m not the only person who has experienced this “surprise;” I wonder how often the MBTA has done this unannounced two-for-one deal.

I previously had heard of stored value Charlie Cards that erroneously had some special unlimited access for unlimited time, and I’ve had intermittent problems in the past with the fare system. For example, once when the clock struck midnight on the last day of the month my monthly pass for the previous month no longer worked and my monthly pass for the subsequent month was not yet recognized. Stranded at midnight with two monthly passes but no train fare! Imagine.

But a whole free pass — very unexpected. This potentially is an $89 mistake by the T. Mistakes like that add up quickly. The T spent thousands chasing two MIT hackers who had devised some theoretical exploit to ride the T more than they were entitled. And then the T turns around and it prints extra monthly passes for free.

Is there a contractor somewhere that owes the T some money back? I wonder how much money the T has lost through this particular quirk.