MBTA and university cut student discount due to funding concerns

(Courtesy of Learning Lowell)

Jeffery Ring
Connector Contributor 

Many students at UMass Lowell used the pilot program that allowed students to use the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter rail for free. But a year later, the program is gone, because they both believed it was financially unsustainable.

The program was based on an idea pitched to the MBTA by the university to allow students free access to the Lowell line between Lowell and Boston. The program was available for a total of 74 days and was used for 22,044 rides over that time (about 298 rides per day), said Brendan Fogarty, the deputy director of revenue for fare policy and strategy for the MBTA.

“UMass Lowell pitched the initial concept, and the MBTA created the digital tools and associated processes needed to administer the program,” Fogarty said.

The process the MBTA used was to have student, faculty and staff use their university email to set up an account on the mTicket app. They then had to complete a survey to better help the university understand the ridership needs.

“The idea was to try and cut down the number of vehicles coming to campus and help with the parking demand,” said Director of Administrative Services Nicholas Piscitello. The hope was that it would be a sustainable program. “We didn’t realize that once the program was up that the process would be a lot [more] challenging to continue.”

The MBTA subsidized the cost for the first semester the partnership was in effect.

“The MBTA subsidized the cost as part of the pilot program. When the pilot program ended, they were no longer going to be subsidizing the cost,” Piscitello said. “The cost would have become a substantial financial burden for the university that we weren’t prepared for and in addition to that, it was utilized more than we had predicted.”

The MBTA made additional offers to the university, but both sides could not agree on a way forward.

“We have discussed possible alternatives, involving cost-sharing with students,” Fogarty said.

The program was started with a discount for the university.

“Both groups settled on a 50 percent discount,” Fogarty said. This number was based on an average price based on the survey that was run.

“While an expansion in ridership from the UMass Lowell community was expected… ridership needs to increase by 100 percent in order to cover the costs,” Fogarty said.

But Piscitello said that was not enough for it to be a viable program. “We were looking at a half-million-dollar program to sustain it,” he said. “The money has to come from somewhere, but we didn’t think it was right to pass that cost onto the students.”

Fogarty agreed.

“The program ended because it was very costly for UMass Lowell due to high ridership and relatively high fares, even after the discount,” Fogarty said. “Furthermore, the MBTA was not positive it could maintain the 50 percent discount.”

It is still possible that the program could return in a different way.

“We have discussed alternative options, but neither organization has made substantial pushes to restart these efforts,” said Fogarty.

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