Apr. 16—BOSTON — The MBTA loses tens of millions of dollars each year because of riders who don't pay, and a plan to modernize the fare collection system could make matters worse.
While the T has taken steps in recent years to crack down on fare evaders, the agency is concerned that plans to upgrade the system to allow electronic payments and all-door boarding will exacerbate the problem.
Lynsey Heffernan, the T's acting assistant general manager for policy, said the planned upgrades will mean faster, more reliable service on the commuter rail, subways and buses. At the same time, they'll give fare evaders more opportunity to catch a free ride.
"That is the risk we are trying to mitigate," she said during a live-streamed hearing Thursday night. "We know fare evasion has the possibility to go up dramatically."
The MBTA estimates losses of $10 million to $20 million a year from fare evaders on the commuter rail alone. Fare evaders on the subway and bus systems cost another $5 million to $6 million a year.
The T said the losses could more than double, with another $30 million a year in lost fares, if it changes fare collection systems without any mitigation efforts.
To address the threat, the agency is proposing a new fare verification system that will eventually enlist civilian inspectors to check tickets. Riders caught without proof of payment could be handed a ticket.
A transportation bond bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in January decriminalized fare evasion by T riders, but it allows the agency to issue civil citations.
A T proposal calls for citations of $50 for a first, second or third offense, and $100 for subsequent offenses. Riders who fraudulently get a fare reduction could be fined $70.
Transit police or civilian inspectors would be authorized to issue citations if they witness someone skipping a fare, or if a rider refuses to show proof of payment, according to the plan.
The proposed fines are much lower than previous criminal citations for evaders — which ranged from $100 to $600, and included non-renewal of a driver's license for failure to pay. Still, they are far higher than what some advocates suggest.
Staci Rubin, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, told T officials Thursday the fines should be reduced. She suggested $10 fine for the first three violations.
"A $50 fare evasion fine for not paying a $1.50 bus fare is unjust and not helpful," she said.
Replacing the fare collection system to make the T's trains and buses move more efficiently is part of Baker's plan to invest $8 billion on modernizing the T. The draft regulations, including the proposed new fines, will go before the MBTA's Fiscal and Management and Control Board on May 10.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org