There is an awful lot of nastiness going on in Massachusetts transportation circles, to put it lightly.  The latest issue regards a potential 19.5% fare hike at the MBTA and whether or not is needed at this moment.  The T’s finances are too complicated for me to weigh in on whether a hike is necessary.

That said, what is going on is indicative of the larger problem of leaving fare increases to periodic public discussion and implementation.  No one wants to see fares go up, but it is economic insanity to think fares can always remain the same price (such thinking killed many nickel trolley lines at the beginning of the 20th century).  Transportation–like any business–faces rising costs based on inflation and demand for greater services.  The latter is a good thing.

I understand that many economically needy people depend on public transit and that any increase in their monthly fare can be a serious hardship.  However, as opposed to facing large increases every 5 to 10 years, I think transit agencies should work with states to legislate a standard increase every 2 to 4 years.

I would propose an agency implementing something like an automatic 9% increase, rounded to the nearest nickel, every three years.  This is in line with 10.25% inflation rate that occurred between 2005 and 2008 and 8.6% rate between 2002 and 2005 in the United States.  For example, let’s take an imaginary transit system where fares are currently $1.50 a ride.  My suggestion would result in the following fares.

  • 2010: $1.65
  • 2013: $1.80
  • 2016: $1.95
  • 2019: $2.10
  • 2022: $2.30

I understand that there are political and social consequences to such automatic action and many low-wage passengers might be hurt.  However, this should alert us to the inequities experienced by low-wage laborers, not the problem of charging reflective fares for public transit.

Part of the problem is we’re conditioned to believe the price of transportation should be a choice as most roads are free and highway tolls rarely change.  However, that’s a reflection of government subsidies, not true costs.  Transit fares must rise occasionally to keep up with costs; every fare hike should not be a political crisis.  Hopefully a system that institutes fair automatic fare increases will make government more likely to provide fair adequate subsidies for public transit systems.