BOSTON — The MBTA is losing tens of millions of dollars a year because of riders not paying fares, including many who are freeloaders on the commuter rail system.
The state hopes to capture some of those lost fares by shifting the transit system to all-electronic payment over the next two years. The new system will allow T riders to board commuter rail trains, trolleys and buses with the tap of a credit card or smartphone.
The commuter rail would add gates at T stations, similar to those now used in the subway system, that require riders to prove they paid for a ticket before boarding trains.
"Riders will tap on a validator before boarding and getting off the train, which will determine the fare," said Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of fare policy for the MBTA. "The conductors will still be coming around to make sure that everyone has done that."
In November, the MBTA's fiscal control board awarded a $723 million contract to Cubic Corp., of San Diego, to design and operate the fare system.
The company has installed similar systems in cities including London, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco, MBTA officials said.
Transit officials say the changes, expected by 2021, would reduce fare evasion, boost ridership, speed up the boarding process and reduce the overall cost of operating the system.
Cash would no longer be accepted aboard T vehicles, but MBTA officials stress that customers will still be able to use paper money and coins at vending machines to get a ticket.
New fare gates would be wider to more easily accommodate passengers with wheelchairs or baby strollers, T officials said.
Baker: Change to deliver dividends
Gov. Charlie Baker is touting the changes as part of his efforts to get the MBTA to ramp up capital spending, including the purchase of new cars for the Red and Orange subway lines, as well as a Green Line extension into Medford and Somerville.
His administration plans to spend $8.5 billion on the system over the next five years to improve ridership, reliability and service.
Baker said the switch to automated fares has implications beyond speed and cracking down on fare evaders.
For one, it will allow the agency to stagger fares based on time of day, the distance a rider travels, or whether someone uses multiple methods of travel.
"Right now every fare system on the T runs on its own, even though people who ride it use multiple modes of transportation," Baker said in a recent interview. "It's really hard for the T to deliver on a consumer-centric approach to the way it does its programming when it doesn't really know how its riders use the system. That needs to change."
Transit advocates have expressed some concerns about doing away with cash fares and the concept of charging more based on distance, saying it isn’t fair to people who don't use smartphones and low-income workers who live far away from Boston.
The MBTA, which offers subway, commuter rail, bus and ferry service, came under intense scrutiny since its operations were crippled during the winter of 2015.
Baker says the investments will eventually pay big dividends for riders in terms of more reliable and faster service.
Cutting losses on the T
Two years ago, the MBTA estimated it was losing about $42 million a year because of riders not paying fares, more than $35 million of that on the commuter rail.
Keolis, the French company that operates the commuter rail, has taken steps to curtail fare evaders by hiring new ticket agents for the trains and using random ticket checks on train and subway platforms to make sure riders are paying.
The changes have reduced the annual loss to between $10 million and $20 million year, according to transit officials.
Not all of the losses are attributed to scofflaws, however.
Commuter rail coaches can get so crowded at rush hour that conductors are unable to check or punch all the tickets in time, giving some a free ride.
Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, said the shift to automated fare collection is a "step in the right direction" towards modernizing the MBTA's operations.
"It's completely archaic to have conductors walking up and down the aisle of a commuter rail train when there are so many different ways of paying a fare," she said.
Still, she wonders if the T will be able to enforce fare collection on the commuter rail if it does away with most of the conductors.
"They need to make sure that they're not losing revenue and that everyone who is getting on that train is paying their fare," she said. "It's a huge problem."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org