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MBTA agrees to new fare evasion enforcement rules

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By Chris Lisinski

BOSTON – NOV. 17, 2022…..Transit police will soon be able to resume issuing fines to riders who fail to pay fares before boarding the MBTA under regulations the transit agency’s board approved Thursday that no longer allow arrests or driver’s license impacts as punishments.

The unanimous vote clears the way to revive fare evasion enforcement after more than a year during which MBTA staff said they were not issuing fines or citations. A January 2021 law empowered the T to take greater control over citations and fines, but the agency until Thursday had not yet put the necessary regulations in place. MBTA staff presented regulations in spring 2021, which the Fiscal and Management Control Board never voted on the before it dissolved in June of that year and was replaced by a new board.

Under the new regulations, all offenses would draw a formal written warning before a citation under the new regulations, which will likely take effect in the coming weeks. First, second and third offenses will carry fines of $50 each, and fourth and subsequent incidents will draw $100 fines.

Board members approved a second, higher set of fines for fraudulent misuse of a reduced fare pass like those available to some eligible seniors and students. After an initial warning, those offenses will carry $75 fines for the first, second and third instances and $150 fines for fourth and subsequent occasions.

In both cases, the count of citations will be subject to a three-year “reset period.”

MBTA Assistant General Manager of Policy and Transit Planning Lynsey Heffernan said the agency wants to normalize a system of “routine checks” that will keep riders regularly paying their fares.

“I shop in a Stop and Shop. Stop and Shop has the little pay gun. I go around and I put all my things into the cart and I check out. Most of the time, I check out and no one checks me, but once in a while, someone does and they audit me, and they’re kind of trying to keep me honest and make sure I don’t get sloppy,” Heffernan told the agency’s board. “That’s really more analogous to the system we’re trying to build and, hopefully, a system where people want to support their transit system. Their dollars are really important here.”

The new penalties are significantly lower than in the past. Before lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker approved fare evasion reforms as part of a wide-ranging transportation bond bill in January 2021, state law called for fines of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense and $600 for subsequent offenses.

Previous law also allowed transit police to arrest someone who failed to pay a fare and refused to identify themselves, and it authorized the Registry of Motor Vehicles to mark someone’s driver’s license for non-renewal if they had at least one unpaid fare evasion citation.

Neither of those punishments is permitted under the reforms enacted last year.

“Whether it’s $1.70 on a bus or a commuter rail (pass), we’re not in the business and don’t want to be in the business of arresting people for not paying their fare,” Heffernan said. “We’d like to increase our compliance, without a doubt, but that is not the method by which we want to go about that.”

Transit advocates who pushed for reforms had argued that the arrest and license non-renewal measures were unnecessarily punitive, particularly because a mark on a driver’s license can spill over into additional financial burden.

Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler, who oversees both the MBTA and the RMV, said whatever benefits might be gained by holding up someone’s license for a fare evasion fine “are considerably outweighed by the cost.”

“I can say certainly from the Registry side of my experience, that is not a targeted tool that I think helps in this circumstance from an enforcement perspective,” Tesler said. “The consequences are real and not necessarily commensurate with the issues here, and it is also a significant administrative burden on the Registry as well as the T.”

Fare evasion fines used to be set by state law itself, but the transportation bond law gave authority to the MBTA to decide those levies via regulation, so long as they fall between $10 and $250.

Heffernan said that change also allows the T to be “a little more nimble” and alter its approach as needed.

Although past estimates have indicated the MBTA loses millions of dollars in potential revenue per year to unpaid fares, the T for several months has not been citing riders who fail to pay.

Heffernan said the changes enacted in the transportation bond law left the MBTA effectively in an unenforceable middle ground, where the agency had authority to set fines but had not yet done so.

The MBTA launched fare gates at North Station in October, but workers are unable to take any significant action against passengers who do not properly use those barriers, Heffernan said. Officials also plan to erect similar fare gates at South Station and Back Bay, the two other major commuter rail hubs.

“Without establishing any penalties for non-payment, we are in a bit of a bind in terms of our ability to enforce fare policy,” Heffernan said. “Currently, if (commuter rail operator) Keolis or the transit police were to see a rider who refused to comply with our fare gates, we would not be able to respond in any meaningful way.”

It was not immediately clear Thursday when enforcement will begin. An MBTA spokesperson said the regulations will get filed with Secretary of State William Galvin’s office in the coming weeks and will not take effect until they are published in the Massachusetts Register, a step that typically occurs a couple of weeks after the secretary receives new regulations.

“The difficult part is ahead in implementation, as we all know. This is a hard one,” said MBTA board member Mary Beth Mello. “It’s going to be very challenging given equity concerns, but also given the fact that you do want to make people pay. It’s only fair to those that do pay.”

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