There is certainly a context to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority offering riders a break from the newly raised commuter rail fares by offering a discount to those who buy tickets before boarding.
A number of arts and entertainment events, for example, offer a better price if one buys tickets in advance as opposed to at the door. And the MBTA has a vested interest in giving riders who buy tickets before getting on the train a $3 break in the fare. It means the on-board conductors don't have to devote nearly as much time and attention to collecting cash from commuters, and that should be a good step forward.
But there's something inherently wrong with a system that doesn't offer the same sale price to all, through no fault of the customers. And that's the case with the new MBTA fare collection plan as it applies to Cape Ann riders beginning July 1.
Here's the deal: the MBTA is working to implement a system whereby riders should be able to buy tickets through apps over their cell phone or other electronic devices. But that system — to be piloted over some commuter rail lines, hopefully the Rockport/Newburyport line, which rumbles through Manchester, the two Gloucester stations and Rockport — won't even be ready for a test run until later this year.
For now, the MBTA is allowing riders to pay $3 less if they buy their tickets at a ticket office or ticketing machine before boarding. So far, so good.
But, as Rockport rider June Hayes notes, none of the four Cape Ann stations has either an office or a ticketing machine. So no Cape Ann commuter rail riders could take advantage of the MBTA's fare discount, even if they wanted to. In fact, the problem extends beyond Cape Ann; Hayes noted that the only stations offering the needed advance ticket access on the Rockport line are in Lynn, and at Boston's North Station. And that creates an uneven playing field that any public agency should indeed try to avoid.
There are, of course, ways around all of this. Many commuters buy monthly passes that should incorporate any advance-sale fare breaks. But there will also be inequities in any new fare collection system going forward. Let's face it, many riders on fixed incomes and others who rely on the T's commuter rail on the North Shore and elsewhere don't have the wherewithal to buy the smart phones or other gadgets that will make them eligible for any advance-sale fare cuts in the future, either.
To that end, while the T's fare hike should generate more revenue, perhaps the agency should make the effort to equip more of its stations with ticketing machines that can give a broader presence to its advance-fare initiatives.
In the meantime, the T should, at least in the short term, keep the fares equitable, and allot all riders the $3 cut in rates until at least a more fair electronic pre-sale system can be put in place.