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.

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.